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Touch, don’t touch

Touch, don’t touch

By Gene Halsey, TES America, Vice President of Product and Business Development,

As AI continues to evolve, perceptual user interfaces, such as voice and gesture recognition, have become the latest in the race to create the next great interactive experience. Proponents of these new technologies tout them as alternatives to touch systems, highlighting the fact that users can effectively interact with a computer without the use of hands. 

But, in our fast-changing world, where new tech lives or dies based on the user experience, will voice and gesture actually replace today’s ubiquitous touch systems? Or, will they ultimately join the ranks of Blackberries and Palm Pilots and fade into obscurity? Fortunately, neither will happen. In fact, we’re on the precipice of a new era of technology, where we can now bring together voice, gesture and touch for an entirely new user experience that harnesses the best of each interface. 

While there’s much excitement surrounding voice and gesture right now, touch will likely maintain its dominance in the marketplace and serve as the backbone of these new hybrid technologies. Why? Several reasons account for it, including the fact that touch is the most intuitive interface, likely because touch is the first sense we develop, and it plays a fundamental role in our development as human beings. And the reality is, people naturally gravitate toward objects, surfaces and materials they can touch or manipulate with their hands. 

The current and next generation of young people entering the workforce are already primed and expect touch capabilities. Their widespread use of touch in the way that they interact with information hasn’t gone unnoticed as major corporations across the globe scramble to integrate touch into the workplace. But it’s not just corporations. Nearly all retail stores offer some version of a touch system, from POS systems and informational displays to interactive product catalogues and many other use cases. 

Still, touch can’t do everything, and that’s where voice and gesture will play key roles in making the technology more intuitive and instinctive. With voice, for instance, we’ve seen the progression from Siri, Alexa, Google Assistant and Cortana, all of which have been immensely popular—an indicator that future voice innovations will have a healthy marketplace of buyers. Voice-recognition is based on Natural Language Processing (NLP), a behavioural technology that automatically manipulates natural language, which has already proven to be successful in the consumer market. 

However, NLP has yet to truly penetrate the business community and take advantage of a market that’s ripe for innovation. How voice becomes integrated with supplemental commands for the primary touch experience will be developmental for the next-generation user experiences.  

Meanwhile, gesture-based recognition uses cameras to feed images into a sensing device, providing real-time data to a computer. This alternative user interface falls within the touchless technology industry, which includes advancements in smart cars, virtual assistants, online customer support, smart homes, augmented reality games and many more. 

Gesture will undoubtedly have a strong influence on the future of automation technology, but when working in tandem with voice and touch, the benefits go beyond video games and other touchless interfaces and extend to applications that can solve some of society’s toughest problems. For instance, the touch, voice and gesture interface trio interacts with an entire person rather than one aspect of their body, reducing pain and fatigue, maintaining comfort and preserving computer-input natural interface during long hours of interaction—all-important benefits of the user experience, especially for applications in the military, medical and other professional fields with staff that work long hours in challenging environments. 

Innovators have also turned toward the corporate buyer, specifically the board room, where exciting work is being done to increase collaboration among employees and create a more comfortable atmosphere in the board room, company offices and beyond. Using voice, gesture and touch, we are looking at developing a next-generation, collaborative-based conference system, equipped with embedded microphones and voice-recognition cameras centred around a digital touchscreen whiteboard—all of which is enabled for virtual attendees to get the full board room experience. Imagine taking a trip to your favourite fast-food restaurant. You’re greeted by a kiosk that actually communicates with you. After you exchange pleasantries with the kiosk, you gesture your hand to turn a digital page on the screen. You see what you like so you reach up to the kiosk and touch your selection. As you’re walking out with your hot food, a voice calls out your name. You turn around and see the kiosk holding out the credit card that you mistakenly left behind. 

Products like these will succeed if they operate as it is intended. As a 30-year touch-systems engineer, I know all too well that it is one thing to build something, another to build it well. You want to get it right the first time, otherwise, you may get leap-frogged by your competitors. Just look at what happened to early eBook adopters, which originally brought their eBook readers to market much sooner than Amazon. Due to glitches and poor integration of the technology, the user experience was terrible, and customers left for a new online store called Amazon. And we know how that story ends.

It’s an exciting time for inclusive touch systems, especially as companies continue to integrate touch with perceptual-user interfaces like voice and gesture-recognition into one interface that utilises the best of each technology—ultimately changing the way we communicate with computers and each other.

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