The Future is Touchless

Tom bio photo
Tom Hollyer
VP Technology
June 26, 2020
June 26, 2020

Hands interacting with a touchless interface

I’m no germaphobe. But in this era of COVID-19, we’re all trying to do things touchless.

Luckily, we’ve already got a good head start.

Remember The Clapper®? The device that uses the sound of a hand clap to turn on and off anything plugged into it, like, say a lamp or a TV? Not very high tech, not very expensive, but an early example of a touchless interface.  “Clap on, clap off.” You can still buy one—and use Alexa Voice Shopping without touching anything until it gets to your door.

We’ve even had Siri, Alexa and Google Home for a while now. Millions of people use them in their homes to control a myriad of connected devices, to check the weather, search the web, order food and more.

And these days, I unlock my smartphone with built-in facial recognition software. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that well when I’m trying to check my grocery list with a mask on. But when it is time to check out, I don’t even have to touch the credit card reader. I just wave my smartphone near it and double-click.

When it comes to changes in the way we do business, all hands are off deck.

Prior to COVID-19, digital wallets had been slow to catch on in American retail settings. Now, estimates vary widely from a high of a 30% increase in March of 2020 alone to a low of around a 10% increase, with some institutions incentivizing the use of digital wallets. For example, by using the Delta American Express card and ApplePay at many major grocery store chains (Kroger, Whole Foods, etc.), consumers can earn four times the Delta miles compared to manual usage.

And the travel industry will soon change in its entirety.

It’ll probably be a while before I go through airport security again, but, when I do, I’ll get through without touching anything. I’ll step up to the Clear kiosk— now available in many concert venues and stadiums—let it scan my iris and walk right past the TSA security station. When I get to the gate, I’ll scan my electronic boarding pass and take my seat.

When I get where I’m going, what about the hotel? Imagine walking up to the desk, paying through your digital wallet, getting a token sent to your smartphone, waving your phone at the elevator door, riding up to your floor, waving your phone at your room door, and walking in. A completely touchless check-in experience is possible right now, though no hotels have yet implemented all the components.

These technologies, from the relatively mundane to the extremely sophisticated, are poised to explode in the coming months and years, with healthcare and safety-related industries driving this adoption. Many hospitals already use facial-recognition to eliminate badge-swiping and keypads for access to clean rooms, with offices, apartment buildings and other places not too far behind.

The next big thing.

Microsoft—which already popularized gesture recognition in the gaming world back with Kinect for Xbox 360— is now developing a system that enables surgical doctors to manipulate x-rays and lab reports with gestures, allowing them to avoid anything non-sterile.

These technologies are also being used to aid the physically challenged. An Italian company, Limix, is using gesture recognition to translate sign language into computer-generated speech. Just imagine a non-speaking deaf person using sign language to order The Clapper over Alexa Voice Shopping. Eye-tracking software, which has been used in research for a long time, is now being used to control devices like laptops.

The auto industry is following suit. In 2016, BMW introduced gesture recognition capabilities in its 7-series vehicles, including five gestures that control music volume, incoming calls, camera angles and even user-programmable functions. This technology will be the next phase in creating a safer driving experience, allowing users to change settings with the wave of a hand rather than fumbling with a touch screen. Subaru, General Motors, Volkswagen, Honda, Toyota, Ford and others are all designing and testing gesture recognition systems for their vehicles.

So, what if you’re not in the auto, medical or travel industries?

All these techniques can be applied to touch screen kiosks in public places like museums, entertainment venues, malls and hospitals. As we move to a more touchless world, in part to combat the spread of COVID-19, brands need to think about how this will impact the customer experience, and how they can implement touchless systems to their own and their customers’ benefit. No brand wants to end up being thought of like the “Wild Gunman” arcade game in “Back to The Future II.” When Marty McFly taught a couple of future kids how to play it, they were shocked…“You mean you have to use your hands? That’s like a baby’s toy!”

Clap on.