Touchscreen Interactivity in the Time of Pandemic

Where Current Safety Proposals Fail, A Novel Solution Emerges

COVID-19 has directly impacted businesses around the world by introducing a problem that none of us saw coming – what do we do with the millions of public-facing shared touchscreens that people are afraid to touch?

Today, touchscreens are practically everywhere – from museums to airports to retail environments to building lobbies to hospitals to gas stations and the checkout line. Until recently, few people gave a second thought to touching an interactive display in public. However, with the world adapting to a new pandemic reality, shared touchscreens have become a potential health and safety risk. For many, there is now an overwhelming reluctance to make contact for fear of contracting disease.

We've spent the better part of this millenium designing and building public-facing interactive applications that rely on touch. Over the last few months, I've fielded no small number of phone calls from concerned clients looking for advice on how to safely keep these significant investments in play. How can we help people feel safe about interacting with digital displays in public again?

What are touchscreen owners to do?

Current wisdom falls into three camps: give end users protection, redesign and rebuild the applications with gestural interfaces, or power them down until this all passes. Let’s talk through each one.

Give PPE to customers

One approach involves the use of PPE (gloves, finger cots, etc.), hand sanitizer, or some form of physical touch proxy (such as a stylus). This was the first recommendation out of the gate from manufacturers as - in theory - it leveraged commonly available products. But given persistent PPE shortages, organizations have scrambled for sources and often faced price gouging (now illegal in most cases; but demand is still outstripping supply, and that means higher prices).

Assuming supply can be found, however, PPE does not guarantee consistent or positive customer experience. Gloves, for instance, must be tightly fitted or else they interfere with sensitive touch gestures. And a stylus cannot accommodate multi-touch features such as pinch-zooming. Then there’s the environmental impact: providing disposable, single-use items like gloves generates a mountain of non-recyclable plastic waste that presents a crisis of its own. Finally, considering the volume required to provide protection to every visitor to a popular destination, the cost of these consumables could be prohibitive. For example, for the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art to provide enough hand sanitizer for each of its 7.36 million visitors1 to interact with a single touchscreen, it would cost nearly $500,000/yr2.

Retrofitting with gestural interfaces

Going completely contactless via gestural interfaces has been floated as another potential solution for making interactive user interfaces safer. And while gestural input technology is available today, retrofitting existing touch UIs with gestural interfaces poses significant challenges.

First, deriving intent from natural human movements is a really hard problem to solve. We all think and move in distinctive ways; my “OK” sign is different than yours, and our “swipe-rights” will never match precisely. It takes complex machine learning to train a system to process the myriad of different ways that a person might simulate, for example, turning an invisible steering wheel, in order to reduce them all to the same intent (“left turn”). As a result, gesture inputs must be large and discrete to normalize for the inherent differences between users. The big movements required can feel unnatural and quickly cause fatigue (what we in the industry lovingly refer to as “gorilla arm”). While modern capacitive touch interfaces are precise and high-resolution, gesture sensors are coarse and still low-resolution.

Gestural interfaces also suffer from the lack of a common “language.” Touch gestures like two-finger swipe to scroll and pinch-to-zoom are now commonly understood, given their near ubiquity and standardization across smartphones and laptop trackpads. But the relatively small number of interactives with gestural interfaces are all custom-developed, meaning that one vendor’s “click” and “swipe” gestures are going to vary from another’s. This presents a huge learning curve for end-users with every new system they encounter. Input tends to be error-prone and significantly slower than a touch-based UI. Failed attempts at gesturing makes users feel frustrated and embarrassed, particularly in public-facing interactives. People typically give up before they invest the time to become an expert use of a system they were probably only going to use for a minute or so anyway.

In other words, using gestures to control an existing touchscreen-based UI is like trying to use your phone with boxing gloves on… clunky and unreliable at best. In addition, gestural interfaces are quite expensive and time-consuming to develop; they require retrofitting existing installations with both new hardware and code. As an immediate fix for our current state of affairs, gestures are a nonstarter.

Temporary shutdown

Having been on the agency side of interactive experience development in physical space for nearly 20 years now, I’m well aware of the effort and cost that goes into creating them. These are not insignificant investments. They take many months to design and build, and much, much longer to plan and fundraise for. They’re well-calculated expenditures designed to produce benefits for an organization by providing utility, education, and/or enjoyment to their customers and visitors. When it comes to reducing the risk of disease transmission, turning them off may be the safest of all the aforementioned solutions, but it has a significant downside for a business’ bottom line and the overall customer experience. Ultimately, it is neither a great short- nor long-term solution.

Exploring new solutions

In considering the challenges of public-facing touchscreens in the pandemic world, we’ve determined that any solution must be safe without requiring expensive and wasteful consumables. It should be intuitive to users, without a steep learning curve. It should be incredibly simple to install and effortless to manage and maintain – set and forget. Ideally, it should be completely contactless, without requiring expensive retrofits. I think just such a solution is possible, and we need look no further than the user’s own smartphone.

Using the smartphone as a platform for interaction with a public-facing interface effectively confines the experience to a safe personal space. The average smartphone user touches their device 2,617 times a day, and does so fearlessly. There’s a comfort in one’s own digital safety blanket – it’s an unspoken member of your own quarantine pod. When coupled with the fact that smartphone owners already know how to perform the most basic input gestures on their phones, you’ve got the raw ingredients of a solution for interacting with shared systems that works for a broad swath of the public.

Given that users feel significantly more secure using their own screens in the place of shared ones, we’ve developed a software solution that elegantly bridges the space between user and touchscreen. With the scan of a QR code, a smartphone becomes a remote trackpad with full multi-touch control of the shared screen. It’s a solution with a low-barrier to entry and high ROI, both economical and eco-friendly. It even has the potential to make touchscreens more accessible to those with severe mobility issues, extending its usefulness far into the future. This is the direction our team has been taking with Freetouch. We're making touchscreens touchless.

Businesses looking to reopen are understandably preoccupied with welcoming their visitors back safely. But while the public is currently touch-phobic, organizations needn’t sacrifice their interactive experiences. When considering solutions, costs, waste, ease of implementation and ease of use must all be taken into account. The best answer, as it turns out, may already be in your own pocket.

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1Source: 2018 AECOM and TEA Theme Index and Museum Index Report

2Projected annual cost of $496,248 assumes the minimum recommended amount of sanitizing gel (3mL per American Council on Science and Health), used before and after touchscreen interaction, where cost of gel is $89.90/8000mL. Does not account for infrastructure such as dispensers.