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Are we entering a touch-free world?

A world of touch

With COVID-19 representing the most pressing healthcare challenge in living memory, it is no wonder that we’ve all become a little obsessive about hygiene. Much of the language of the management of the disease centres around barriers – isolation, distancing, quarantine, and so on – and understandably so.

We live in a world of touch. We interact with the world around us, and with each other, via all our senses, but arguably none is as crucial, nor as taken for granted as touch. Its absence can cause profound harm with “touch starvation” or “hug deprivation” causing significant emotional turmoil for those in isolation.

Just pause for a moment and try to count up the things you’ve touched today. Its not easy, though this news report from WRAL in Raleigh, North Carolina does a nice job at highlighting the sheer diversity and number of touchpoints. Getting estimates is tricky, but some have made a good stab at it:

  • The typical mobile phone user touches his or her phone 2,617 time every day, and extreme users touch their phones more than 5,400 times daily (link).
  • A 2015 project by Argentinian designer Paula Zuccotti – Everything we Touch – (link) created a visual inventory of what people touched in a typical day – and came up with an estimate of some 140 items.
  • So-called high-touch public surfaces include elevator buttons, public taps, handrails, doorknobs, shopping carts, ATM screens, gas pumps, checkout keypads, and many more otherwise mundane objects we encounter (link).
  • We may touch our faces as much as 15-20 times an hour, mostly absent-mindedly (link)

While in normal times, these conscious and sub-conscious touches pass by unnoticed and without impact, right now, every touch is a potential infection point.


Reaching for the hand-san

Some of the recent evidence suggests that touch is far less important a route of transmission of the virus than air (link). Even so, our COVID avoidance strategies, both those mandated our recommended by government and those we’ve adopted ourselves, have centred around reducing the number of things we touch and/or regular hand sanitising.

Indeed, sales of hand sanitiser sky-rocketed early on in the pandemic and have remained high ever since, to such a degree that many distillers (Brewdog, Anheuser Busch, and others) repurposed their production lines to add to the efforts.


Creating a generation of germaphobes

Longer-term many have speculated that one side-effect of the pandemic will be to create an entire generation of germaphobes from our young people (link). While academics are split, anecdotal evidence from schoolteachers in my family does back up this idea. In a way it is almost unthinkable that the constant drilling and reinforcement of hygiene and distancing measures that, quite understandably, needs to happen in schools, won’t leave its mark as a long-term wariness about engaging with the wider world.


Reducing and replacing touchpoints

Consumers are concerned about picking up infections from surfaces outside of their homes:

  • 80% now think public touchscreens are unhygienic (link)
  • 73% would be likely to interact using touchless technology in future (link)

Given this, there is now a huge amount of innovation effort focused on reducing touchpoints in our everyday lives. In some cases, this may involve the rolling out of existing technologies (such as voice- and gesture-control) or of newer solutions. Here is a flavour of what is going on, but we’d invite all to review their processes and identify areas where physical touch can be made safer or avoided altogether:

Touch-free options are starting to replace physical touchpoints or to help us not to touch our faces:

  • Bangkok’s Seacon Square has installed foot-activated buttons for its elevators (link) and Thyssenkrupp elevator company now has a publicly available commercial version (link).
  • NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab has created Pulse vibrating necklace to help people stop touching their face (link).
  • US company Boltgroup built the Fearless Touch, a hands-free accessory to open doors and press buttons (link).
  • Beauty company Meiyume has created a touchless sampling tester to create safe and hygienic in-store environments (link).
  • Singapore’s Changi Airport has just rolled out new contactless innovations to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission when air travel resumes (link).

An opportunity for voice: People are using their voice assistants more often during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic than they were even a few months ago. A positive feedback loop where using a voice assistant leads to more frequent use in the future is emerging that may bode well for the future of this technology. Two out of three voice assistant users reported that technology makes their lives easier, partly by reducing the need to touch devices (link)  and partly out of desire for some form of human-like interaction (link):

  • Japanese firm Donut Robotics is developing C-FACE, a Bluetooth-enabled smart mask that pairs with the user’s smartphone, amplifies speech and translate into eight languages (link).
  • MoonMate is a voice-activated Alexa skill from MoonPie that provides company and chat to consumers quarantining alone (link).

Gesture control and a “senses of touch”: The coronavirus pandemic is driving a boom in “air button” technologies that allow users to operate devices without physically touching them, as concerns persist over the spread of the virus through contact with surfaces (link) and some are experimenting with “mid-air haptics”, which involve using concentrated ultrasound radiation to mimic a sense of touch:

  • BMW have gesture control in some of their cars now (link)and Jaguar Land Rover is trialling a contactless movement-tracking system — dubbed “predictive touch” — for its dashboard control panel (link).
  • Ultraleap, which has developed hand-tracking and mid-air haptic technology has secured a deal with CEN Media Group to install screens that can display standard adverts and touchless interactive content in 10 US cinemas (link)


Your no-touch to-do list

You can’t over-sanitise: People are understandably wary about getting back out into crowded situations such as commuting, eating out or shopping. Many suppliers of such services are doing a good job of allaying fears but may not have bargained for how long such hygiene practices may need to be kept up.

Investigate new tech to reduce/replace touch: Explore how you can go further than merely making hand sanitiser available. What new technologies can lessen the fears of users, recognising that the benefits of such innovation may be promotional and perceptual as well practical.

Support your touch-starved customers: While there is no substitute for direct physical contact, service providers can support in other ways, perhaps by upping the quality of your non-physical contact – a smile and a conversation may go some of the way towards making your customers feel the warmth of contact.

Be particularly sensitive to the needs of the young: We all need to play a role in ensuring that young people strike the right balance between staying safe but also learning what a normal living environment feels like.


This article was written by Nick Chiarelli, Head of Trends at UNLIMITED