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Touchless Technology

One of the few positive side effects of the COVID-19 pandemic is the influx — and wider adoption — of exciting, new innovations. Touchless technology is one such innovation.

Due to the omnipresent threat posed by contaminated surfaces, companies have had to reassess how users interact with their devices.

In July, Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) announced a new contactless touchscreen. Developed in conjunction with the University of Cambridge, their patented “predictive touch” technology is designed to keep drivers’ eyes on the road whilst reducing the spread of bacteria and viruses.

A cartoon image depicting card machines, with a user attempting to make a contactless payment before resorting to inserting their card and punching in their pin number.

The announcement states:

"In the ‘new normal’ once lockdowns around the world are lifted, a greater emphasis will be placed on safe, clean mobility where personal space and hygiene will carry premiums…

"Lab-tests and on-road trials showed the predictive touch technology could reduce a driver’s touchscreen interaction effort and time by up to 50%, as well as limiting the spread of bacteria and viruses."

It continues:

"The technology uses artificial intelligence to determine the item the user intends to select on the screen early in the pointing task, speeding up the interaction. 

"A gesture tracker uses vision-based or radio frequency-based sensors, which are increasingly common in consumer electronics, to combine contextual information such as user profile, interface design and environmental conditions with data available from other sensors, such as an eye-gaze tracker, to infer the user’s intent in real time."

But before you think this is a timely rabbit-from-a-hat-trick from JLR, it’s worth noting how long the project has been in the pipeline.

The technology itself was developed between 2012 and 2018 by the Centre for Advanced Photonics and Electronics (CAPE) as part of their “MATSA” project: Motion Adaptive Touchscreen System for Automotive. Back then, “Corona” was to be enjoyed cold with a slice of lime, and contactless technology was a nice-to-have. I doubt anyone involved could have anticipated how hugely in-demand such technology would become, or how fast.

But it’s not only the automotive industry that stands to benefit from futuristic thinking, with the pandemic leading to a surge of interest in other contactless solutions, including so-called 'mid-air haptics'.

A cartoon image of an individual stood before a digital screen, and rearranging the tabs and windows with hand gestures.

Technology company Ultraleap formed in 2019, when Leap Motion and Ultrahaptics came together. They purport to offer the world’s most advanced hand tracking through their touchless technology:

"The cleanest interface ever. Gesture control powered by hand tracking and mid-air haptics allows you to operate interactive kiosks, elevators, appliances, and medical interfaces without touching surfaces."

A survey of 500 participants, undertaken by Ultraleap, illustrates how perceptions have changed in the “post-COVID-19 world”. 

According to their findings, 80% now think public touchscreens are unhygienic, 73% would be likely to interact using touchless technology in the future and 82% think Ultraleap’s touchless technology is hygienic.

I’m actually surprised the percentages aren’t higher. Whilst most of us lived in blissful ignorance before — not thinking twice about punching in our pin number at the ATM machine or placing our McDonald’s order with a few taps on a screen — we live in a very different world now. One where physical interaction — of any kind — can have deadly consequences.

We used to view the touchscreen check-in points at GP surgeries as a welcome step towards modernisation. Now we see a minefield of germ-ridden fingerprint smudges to be avoided at all costs.

As the Ultraleap website so succinctly puts it: “business as usual isn’t an option”. Much to the joy of Ultraleap investors, I’m sure…

In June, the company outlined a new deal with CEN Media Group to install touchless technology solutions into their digital out-of-home cinema network, to “allow brands to continue to engage with consumers in a safe and responsible way.”

Kevin Romano, CEO and Founder of CEN Media Group, is quoted in the announcement:

"Organisations that are taking proactive measures to protect and enrich the consumer experiences of their customers will be the most successful in the post-COVID-19 world. Safety is always paramount, but it doesn’t have to come at the expense of the user experience. We have addressed those issues head on with the installation of Ultraleap’s touchless technologies which provide safe and clean interaction while engaging the consumer."

Whether the partnership delivers the desired results remains to be seen, but I applaud CEN’s proactive approach. There will surely come a time when gesture-powered technology is the norm, but why wait? As things stand, the risk of doing nothing is much greater than any posed by early adoption.

And, let’s be honest, who doesn’t fancy themselves as Tom Cruise in Minority Report sans the fancy gloves? Although I expect the reality may be a little bit more like this gem from YouTubers CollegeHumor. Poor Katie… 


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