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Touch is Back—and Touchless is Here to Stay

As the pandemic eases in the United States, we are seeing strong interest in all of our interactive products.
Authored by
Jim Spadaccini
Founder & Creative Director

As 2021 has unfolded, we’ve begun to see strong, renewed interest in our touch tables and displays. The widespread availability of vaccines here in the United States is starting to have a positive impact. What a contrast from last year, when cases were on the rise and we were even told that touching contaminated surfaces could spread COVID-19. We now know that transmission from surfaces is highly unusual; in fact, there is only a 1 in 10,000 chance of contracting the virus in this scenario. As the numbers go down, we expect the rebound in interest to continue. What we’ve found surprising is that interest is strong in both our touch and touchless interactive products.

We expected renewed interest in our touch tables. Over the years, this form factor has become a standard for museum exhibitions and experience centers. In addition, our touch tables (and our displays on motorized stands) are used in drafting, industrial design, architecture, scientific visualization, education, and other similar endeavors. The path forward with touchless technology was a bit less clear, but interestingly, some clients are moving down this path for reopening. I think there is reason to believe that touchless technology, boosted by the pandemic, may continue to play a major role post-pandemic.

Touchless Gets a Lift

Touchless technology is not new, but it has developed over the years in fits and starts. We’ve learned a lot about touchless technology, and last year really focused our efforts. At the beginning of the pandemic, I wrote a series of blog posts on Touchless Gesture-Based Exhibits which explored some work we did initially with Intel back in 2015. This exploration led us back to Intel, where we received funding from their Pandemic Response Technology Initiative. That led to our Touchless Design, an open-source project which took first prize in the Ultraleap Beyond Touchscreens Competition and included a collaboration with the National Gallery of Art. That exhibit is on display as the museum reopens on May 14.

The National Gallery of Art installation uses our touchless add-on module, which is designed to extend touchless interaction on our Drafting touch table. Designed as a system that could easily be added or removed, we imagine that once the pandemic eases further, that is indeed what will happen: it will be removed and the exhibit will revert to a touch-based experience. It is a different story for installations using our Touchless Pedestal, which provides interaction in large media settings where touch is either not preferred or is difficult to implement.

Solving a Pre-Pandemic Problem

Large projection-based environments, LED tile walls, and large video walls are generally either non-interactive or use full-body interaction. Touch is difficult to implement in these instances because of the large size and shape of the wall or installation. For example, LiDAR devices or IR frames can provide touch at a large scale, but they don’t work on curved surfaces, and they require that the user touches the wall or display. Also, depending on the scale, users may be too close to the projection or display to view it properly even if touch is implemented.

Full-body interaction is great for kinetic or art-based types of installations, but the lack of fidelity limits the types of installations that can be supported. In museums, this reduces the number of ideas or topics that can be adequately explored. Lack of fidelity can lead to experiences that become all too similar, and which, over time, will likely become less interesting to discerning visitors. The precision of the Touchless Pedestal along with its small footprint allows for new types of interactions with large-scale installations, interactions that provide more complexity and nuance.

Multiuser Interaction: Coming This Summer

The current version of Touchless Design (version 2.0) supports the Touchless Pedestal but is limited to single-user interaction. This too is a limiting factor for many museums and/or experience center installations. After all, one of the primary reasons we got involved in designing and building multitouch tables was their ability to support multiuser applications. I am happy to announce that we have already built a prototype multiuser version of Touchless Design which is now being tested internally. This new version of the software will be released later this year.

Adding support for multiple visitors will open up new possibilities for interaction. For example, multiuser games and other exhibit experiences with more social interaction can be developed. We are excited to see what will be created with this important new feature. There’s little doubt that even in a post-pandemic world, the Touchless Pedestal is here to stay—and so is Touchless Design. We will keep you up to date as we continue to develop these touchless technologies. Stay tuned!