This touch-free touchscreen could be perfect for a post-pandemic world

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Researchers have created a touchscreen interface that doesn't require touching.

The thought of interacting with a public touchscreen right now might send shivers up your spine. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, people are on-edge about germs. That’s understandable.

It is also why researchers from the University of Cambridge have created a touchscreen interface that doesn’t require actual touching. The innovation could be a perfect addition to the post-pandemic world.

No Touching

When researchers set out to create a no-touch touchscreen, they didn’t necessarily have the pandemic in mind. In fact, they were thinking of the infotainment systems in cars when the idea first took off.

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Now, though, the world looks a lot different. It also means that their touchless touchscreen could have widespread implications.

It makes use of a technology called predictive touch. The Cambridge researchers hold a patent for their innovative idea. It is currently being developed as part of a research collaboration between the university and Jaguar Land Rover.

The interface uses a combination of artificial intelligence and sensor technology to predict what users want to tap. In doing so, it eliminates the need to actually touch the screen.

Today, touchscreens dominate consumer transactions in public spaces. Everything from ATMs to check-in kiosks to self-checkout registers requires users to tap a screen. That leaves behind millions of pathogens, including the common cold, influenza, and the coronavirus responsible for causing COVID-19. Reducing the amount of contact between users and public screens would go a long way in stopping the spread of those pathogens.

Many will wonder if existing screens will need to be replaced to support the touchless technology. Fortunately, the answer is no. The Cambridge researchers note that their software-based solution has reached “high technology readiness levels.” Moreover, it can be integrated into existing touchscreens and interactive displays as long as the right sensors are present.

The system relies on a vision-based or RF-based gesture tracking sensor as well as an eye-tracking sensor if it is available. That hardware is becoming increasingly popular in consumer devices.

In other words, the hardest part about converting touchscreens to no-touch screens might be getting people to realize the difference.

Interaction in Motion

It’s clear that this technology has implications for reducing the spread of pathogens. However, that isn’t where its usefulness stops.

Lee Skrypchuk, a human-machine interface technical specialist at Jaguar Land Rover, says, “This technology also offers us the chance to make vehicles safer by reducing the cognitive load on drivers and increasing the amount of time they can spend focused on the road ahead.”

During lab-based testing, researchers found that their predictive touch technology is able to reduce interaction effort and time by as much as 50 percent. When it comes to keeping drivers from distractions, that is a noteworthy improvement.

The researchers note that the tech even works in less-than-ideal conditions. Cambridge’s Simon Godsil, who led the project, says, “Touchscreens and other interactive displays are something most people use multiple times per day, but they can be difficult to use while in motion, whether that’s driving a car or changing the music on your phone while you’re running.”

The predictive touch interface minimizes that difficulty by guessing where the user wants to touch rather than waiting for them to try and do so.

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