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The ubiquity of touch is here to stay


As the world continues to battle COVID-19, innovators are already at work ensuring future pandemics are mitigated or avoided altogether. A major effort is underway to reduce human-to-human contact in public spaces without disrupting the natural flow of society—in an effort to prevent the spread of disease while improving people’s lives in the meantime.


An impossible feat? Perhaps. But there are some very smart people who know how to make this happen, and it all starts with utilising the power of touch solutions. Now that might sound counterintuitive, considering the CDC states that our hands play a role in spreading infection. However, current and emerging touchscreen technologies are addressing the risks associated with hand-to-surface exposure and the results are more than promising. And that’s a good thing, because touchscreens are here to stay. Why? 


Our sense of touch enables us, not only to navigate the world, but actualise our life experiences. Without it, we’d simply be observers in a world not our own. Scientists believe that touch is the first of our five senses we develop, and it plays a fundamental role in our development as human beings. Perhaps that’s why so many of today’s technological advances—iPhones, gaming systems, self-service kiosks, industrial automation tech, digital signage, POS terminals and others— include touch interfaces. 


Touch has become so ubiquitous in today’s society that the thought of not having touch capabilities is unthinkable. We’ve become so ingrained in consuming data this way, that it’s imperative for us as an industry to make those interactions as safe as possible and drive initiatives to protect the users that are interacting on our screens. Fortunately, touchscreens have come a long way since they were first invented in 1965, and they’re about to take another giant leap forward, with innovators discovering newer and better ways to interact with data. 


Here’s a closer look at a few ways touch systems are making our world a safer place: 


Antimicrobial coatings: Touchscreen manufacturers are increasingly adding antimicrobial coatings to their products, providing display interfaces where bacteria and other microbial contaminants cannot grow. Unlike disinfectants and cleaning products, the active ingredients within antimicrobial coatings on touchscreens provide round-the-clock protection against microbes. Touchscreens with antimicrobial coatings are already widely used in high-risk areas like hospitals, laboratories and airlines, among others. But, as pandemic concerns rise, we’re beginning to see these protected coatings on ATMs, information kiosks, bartop games, POS terminals and industrial applications. 


Antiviral coatings: Antimicrobial coatings are wonderful additions to a touch solution, but they only address a subset of all potential harmful organisms that could live on a touch surface.  Antiviral coatings will provide an active viral and microbe killing environment which is “always on.” These coatings are activated by light and do not require a fuel source like silver which is prevalent in antimicrobial coatings.  The chemical reaction that takes place between organism and coating once started will work even as light is removed from the screen.  This allows touch environments to clean themselves in low use times and provide the user another layer of security in their interaction with the screen.


Contactless: In an era of heightened concern of bacterial or viral transfer, the greater public is being introduced to contactless projective capacitive touch (PCAP) display interfaces. The “touch” interaction with the screen is pulled away from the glass surface and is actuated in air.  At TES, we call this technology AirTouch. Unlike antimicrobial coatings that lose their efficacy over time, this product retains its effectiveness on viruses and bacteria for as long as the product is in use. What are the implications? We’re looking at safe user interactions by eliminating a physical screen touch. When used properly, there is a next-to-zero probability that a contaminated screen will infect the user. Another great aspect of this technology is the user is essentially interacting with the device in the same way they would with traditional touch, so there’s no learning curve and it can be retrofitted into existing installations easily.


Touchless Gesture-Based Interfaces: An expansion of the contactless PCAP display interface, touchless gesture-based display interfaces would be powered by built-in cameras that detect movement. Whether by swiping a hand, giving a thumbs up or pinching fingers together, the screen would react to the said body movements by either switching screens, selecting an option or zooming in, respectively. We might see this type of technology work well with in-store surveys, casino games, menu selections at self-service kiosks and many other applications. In some cases, gesture-based interfaces may not allow the user to completely avoid touching the screen; but it certainly can reduce the contact time, which will ultimately reduce the viral or bacterial load that the user may transfer to themselves. In addition to the built-in cameras that power the gesture-controlled interfaces, there is also opportunity to work with millimeter-wave (mmWave) sensors. Similar to the radar or lidar in a vehicle, mmWave sensors detect the presence of a human being and classify their physical hand gestures and other movements before sending those commands to the computer to be calculated for response.


Remote Control: Many industries will begin to see an increase in remote control touch systems, which utilise cellular data connections between personal devices and cloud servers. This will allow users to control certain commands on kiosks, casino slot machines or even ATMs with their own personal phone or device—ensuring they will not contaminate or get contaminated by touching a public screen. Of course, there are security risks involved and will need to be addressed, similarly to how we now secure cellular connections with a separate encrypted tunnel from a cloud server to a host machine. Once a device is listed as a “Trusted Device,” the host machine and device can communicate back and forth safely. The benefit here is that the user is bringing their own device into the touch experience and hopefully quantifying the risks of that personal device’s contamination at a level that they are comfortable with.


UVC Add-Ons: Varying wavelengths of ultraviolet (UV) light-emitting diodes (LED) have been proven to kill viruses and pathogens, including COVID-19. This has led to the development of UV LED bars that can be attached to touchscreens and swiped in-between uses, shooting bursts of UV LEDs as it sweeps the screen. The recent pandemic has only accelerated the use of these light sources as cleaning solutions for touchscreens and personal devices; and has led to a rise in unregulated products making promises that are difficult to regulate, which is why it’s important to trust the manufacturer of the product. Because UV light is a known carcinogen and can be harmful to humans, touchscreen operators must be intentional when using these add-on light sources to clean their screens. Otherwise, they risk injuring themselves or worse, the customer. 


Self-Cleaning: One of the most—if not, the most—advanced touch systems in the world will likely hit the market in 2022 and will have the ability to self-clean and destroy viruses within minutes. Like the anti-viral coatings, these screens will be able to destroy organisms while in use or at higher intensity at periods of rest – but will not require any additional coatings or add-ons to the surface of the screen.  As such, these touch systems should prove cost effective to implement in a wide range of public use locations.  These systems would be harmless to the user but deadly to organisms that reside on the screen.  While in development right now, the potential of this technology gives hope that the next pandemic will be much better protected from our touch experiences than this one has been.  


The interesting thing about these issues surrounding the risks of infection and spreading disease is that none of these technologies would be needed if we, as human beings, washed our hands and kept the devices we use clean in-between uses. Unfortunately, that’s not the reality we live in. So, it’s up to the industry to develop the safest technology as possible and mitigate the opportunities for human error. While we are living in an uncertain time, with threats seemingly rising all around us, it’s also a time to be excited because the world’s smartest minds are working together to find solutions that better our lives. As a touch-systems professional for nearly 30 years, I’ve had the opportunity to witness ingenuity at his best, and it has been a fun ride to say the least. The best part of it all is that we’re just getting started – wait until you see what’s next. 


AUTHOR: Gene Halsey, General Manager, TES America

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