Josh Bunce, founder and CEO of the iuf Group
With Covid-19 came the fear of contact. Consumers moved from a position of preferred tactility and an appreciation of shared tech, to one where we thought twice before engaging with interactive screens, where we only picked up the things that were completely necessary – and doused ourselves with hand sanitiser after. Three years on from the dawning of the virus, vaccinations have lessened the threat and given us all the room to breathe once more. But having had our eyes opened to the risk of contact contamination, most of us are now wary about touch technology. Whether it’s in doctor’s surgeries or retail premises, we don’t really want to physically interact with digital touch screens and there is now a growing demand for touch-free tech which has led to innovation.
But where is touch-free technology heading? How is it likely to evolve? And where are we likely to see it in the near future?
Why touch-free technology is changing the consumer experience
The appeal of touchless technology is manifold, particularly in retail. It provides an interesting and appealing way for brands to engage with their customers and showcase goods to their best advantage. But, it is also clean and safe. It doesn’t hold the risk of becoming a contagion point – whether for Covid, other already known viruses and bacteria, or future pandemics in the waiting. It is less likely to be damaged or break through rough usage. And, it has the potential for a diverse range of applications.
The problem is that touchless technology is nothing new. It has been available for years and is already deployed in a number of places. The touch-free taps and hand dryers in some public restrooms leap to mind. But broader application and adoption have been stalled, largely because of the costs involved. So, until now, touchless technology has failed to reach its full potential. So, what are we going to see now that the demand and funding are in place? What forms will touch-free technology take?
Using sensors to identify and interpret hand movements as commands, gesture recognition technology enables customers to interact with devices without touching them. In its simplest form, this tech can be activated with a simple wave, and this is probably what we’re most likely to see in retail environments. But more sophisticated touchless user interfaces are possible, where tech is trained to interpret different gestures or hand sequences in different ways, enabling the technology to be deployed in a range of scenarios. There is also the potential for users to set up their own gesture patterns for a unique user experience.
Touchless sensing is already widely deployed. It is the technology that supports automatic doors and self-flushing toilets and it is similar in form to gesture recognition technology. Using a lensed optical matrix sensor, this technology detects motion, that is then translated into a prompt to activate the screen – or other processes. In retail, this will most likely be deployed for advertising means. When combined with facial recognition technology, touchless sensing can support targeted advertising and more personalised shopping experiences, as screens change their content according to customer type and proximity.
As I touched on above, facial recognition is another area with a lot of scope. It doesn’t just hold the potential for personalised advertising. It can also be used in experiential retail. When combined with actual reality software, it enables customers to interact with products – in-store and out. It can be used with ‘Magic Mirrors’, enabling customers to virtually try products – Charlotte Tilbury already uses the tech to allow customers to experiment with makeup without actually touching the products, while ‘selfie mirrors’ have become a feature of one of Sports Direct’s flagship stores, allowing customers to make a memento of their shopping experience.
At this stage, most people are familiar with voice recognition tech. Whether it’s an Alexa device, a Google screen, or Apple’s Siri, voice recognition technology has become commonplace. Created to understand human voices and respond to trigger words, voice tech has taken over the role of ‘home assistant’. And in business, it is already being used in call centres, to enhance customer service, detect fraud, and identify the vulnerable. But that’s not the end of its potential. In retail, there is enormous scope for voice recognition, for both wayfinding and stock checking, freeing consumers to serve themselves, and sales assistants to concentrate on selling.
Of course, any technology that can be used to detect a customer presence can also be used for analytics. By feeding back not only customer numbers, but also how customers interacted with products, displays and technology, the interfaces can provide live insights into your store, enabling responsive interactive campaigns that deliver instantly measurable feedback at the same time as protecting customer privacy.
Touch-free technology already has a waiting audience. It is already understood by most would-be users and it can be used in a variety of ways, making it an area worthy of investment for both developers and retailers as we move into more of a safety-conscious, contactless future.