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Will hygiene concerns usher in a new era of touchless tech?

Covid-19 and our new socially-distanced society have required increased consideration when it comes to hygiene and standards of sanitation. And as we return to public spaces, interactive screens there, operated by touch, are rightly of concern to the brands and agencies that deploy them. So, thoughts are increasingly turning to touchless technology and how it can be implemented for outdoor and ambient media.

As part of The Drum’s Can-Do Festival, Anders Hakfelt, the senior vice-president of product and marketing at hand tracking and haptics company Ultraleap, tells us just how a touch-free interface might feel for the user.

“By using ultrasound, you can create small points of very high sound pressure that you can move around in space,“ he says. “By essentially modulating it at a frequency you can feel in your hands, you can create a sense of touch that’s invisible.“

About a year ago, Ultraleap acquired a US company called Motion that works on camera tracking and hand tracking technology. “Using a small infrared camera, this tech can track your hands very accurately and it has a lot of applications. Out-of-home, for example, is just one area we’re working on. But by bringing these two technologies together, we can now create what is, effectively, a touchless interface.”

For Catherine Morgan, the director of outdoor media company Ocean’s innovation division, Ocean Labs, the technology has potential entertainment uses, as well as powering more practical OOH experiences. “At Legoland, for example, you can go on a ride in 3D glasses and shoot lightning bolts at monitors and things like that, and that is done by hand tracking.

”You could go watch a movie about the sea and be able to feel droplets of water and waves on your hands, to go along with the sounds and the visuals.”

Both panelists note that while touchless tech has been in development for some time, the need for touchless interfaces has been exacerbated by coronavirus. “Unsurprisingly, around 80% of people view touchscreens as quite unhygienic,“ Hakfelt points out. “However, when we show people video clips of how they might engage with contactless or touchless interfaces, they are overwhelmingly positive.”

Hakfelt also stresses that many of us are more familiar with touchless tech than we may even realise, with voice activated home devices like Alexa and Siri part of many people’s everyday lives, as well as features on personal devices such as mobile apps.

“Voice technology is great in certain cases, but in public spaces it can be noisy or you may not want to speak out. Likewise, mobile apps are also heavily used and are great if they are up to date with your details, but if you are engaging with a brand on a spur of the moment and don’t have the app or it’s not up to date... well we’ve all been there.

“With touchless, however, you have the ability to have an interface that is independent of all those things as well as being a bit more robust and user friendly. What came out in our research is that people would consider using something like a mobile app, but that if they could have something at their fingertips they would prefer that.”

On how soon we can expect to see this technology in the wild, Morgan concludes that the back end of the year is going to be really busy. “It can really help those brands trying to cut through and stand out in the market at what’s always a busy time, so I’m feeling very optimistic.”

Hakfelt and Morgan spoke with executive editor Stephen Lepitak as part of The Drum’s Can-Do Festival, an online event celebrating the positive energy, innovation and creative thinking that can make the marketing community such a powerful force for good. You can watch the interview in full here.

Sign up to watch forthcoming sessions and see the full Can-Do schedule here.

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