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.
Last week, Jaguar Land Rover announced that it was trialling a contactless movement-tracking system — dubbed "predictive touch" — for its dashboard control panel.
Developed with the University of Cambridge, it tracks users' hand motions and combines this with other information such as eye movements to interpret which option they wish to select.
"Predictive touch technology eliminates the need to touch an interactive display and could therefore reduce the risk of spreading bacteria or viruses on surfaces," said Lee Skrypchuk, a human-machine interface technical specialist at Jaguar Land Rover.
He added that the system could also improve safety by decreasing the time drivers need to spend looking away from the road.
Other companies are going a step further by deploying so-called "mid-air haptics", which involve using concentrated ultrasound radiation to mimic a sense of touch.
"It works by modulating ultrasound speakers in such a way that you can make them perceivable on the non-hairy part of your skin," said Marianna Obrist, professor of multisensory interfaces at University College London.
Such technologies have already been used in sectors such as entertainment, for instance in full-body virtual reality experiences.
But Tom Carter, chief technology officer at mid-air haptics company UltraLeap, said that the coronavirus had created additional demand. "We want to enable users to keep interacting with touch screens without touching them," he said.
Last month, UltraLeap signed a deal with CEN media group, which runs advertising displays and digital posters in cinema lobbies across the US. The company's hand-tracking and ultrasonic technology will be installed on top of existing systems to allow customers to interact with media on the screens, beginning with a rollout across 10 cities.
"Touch screens may have enabled the widespread use of self-serve kiosks and digital screens, but in today's health-and-safety-conscious climate, we need to be thinking of the next step," said Kevin Romano, chief executive and founder of CEN media group.
"The future of public interfaces and interactive experiences lies in touchless technology.
"Not only does this make for a safer experience for the end user, it also creates a more engaging way for brands to interact with consumers," he added.
Carter said that UltraLeap was also developing hand-tracking for fast-food restaurant kiosks by installing cameras above the touch screen. "It's really easy to use," he said, "you can carry on using these screens and don't have to learn anything new."
UltraLeap is also exploring how the technology could be developed for settings such as elevator buttons, ATMs and map kiosks in malls, he said.
Potential uses for mid-air haptics go beyond transforming touchscreens, said Obrist. She pointed to research she had carried out on the impact of the technology on emotions, and the potential for providing a sense of connection in a physically distanced relationship.
"In the context of Covid, there are so many examples where you cannot touch a loved one or friend, or you're hesitant to touch a door to open it ... mid-air haptics can give you the much needed sense of touch."
Written by: Siddharth Venkataramakrishnan
© Financial Times