A Touchless 2020 | Engadget

Hopefully, the US will soon enter a post-pandemic world. This is likely to be a preliminary experience. The memories are still raw and the conditioning – wash your hands for two ‘Happy Birthday’ songs! Do not touch your face! – is still instinctive. Meanwhile, throughout 2020, the technology industry has pushed products aimed at minimizing, disinfecting or detecting physical contact. Which of these things will we throw away when society reopens and what can become permanent?

TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 13: Employees stand in front of a monitor during a demonstration of the smart gateless and tactless entrance that allows temperature controls and face recognition for masked faces on July 13, 2020 in Tokyo, Japan, at NEC Corporation headquarters .  NEC Corporation turned its skyscraper in Tokyo into a smart building to display

Tomohiro Ohsumi via Getty Images

Earlier this year, while epidemiologists were still working out the most important ways in which the virus could be transmitted, we began to see new applications for portable materials. The Immutouch, for example, was a wristband designed to break compulsive habits such as nail biting by vibrating when the user lifts his hand to a specific position. The founders rather turn to a product that buzzes when you want to touch your face. Over the summer, NASA made a similar product in the form of an open-source 3D-printed chain called Pulse.

Touchless touchscreens, controlled by gestures, also arrived at museums and shopping malls. One version at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC was made by Ideum. You not only control a cursor with hand movements, bend your finger to click or make a fist to drag objects; if you try to physically touch the screen, the edge turns red and gives you a slight scolding. The system won Ultraleap’s developer competition to design a better touch-free interface, a competition that could also see projects for the purchase of custom ice cream and the management of an elevator.

Tanay Singhal and Mahika Phutane's touchless elevator concept.
It promises to close the doors for stormy wanderers passively-aggressively, much less subtly.

Tanay Singhal, Mahika Phutane and Ultraleap

If you did have to make contact with the physical world, both Apple and Samsung introduced handwashing features on their smartwatches to dutifully clean up afterwards. For the Galaxy Watch, a handwashing app reminds you to clean up every two hours and have you wipe to start a 25-second timer as soon as you start. In watchOS 7, meanwhile, the device can automatically detect when your hands have been washed by motion sensors and the sound of running water, and give the process timing accordingly.

To monitor your condition, $ 300 Oura smartwatches – the ones the NBA spearheaded – were claimed to detect COVID-19 symptoms by, among other things, tracking temperature and heart rate, while Fitbit also tracked skin temperatures on its Introduced Sense Smart Watch. And of course, Apple and Google’s exposure notification project can tell you if you’ve crossed paths with someone who could be contagious.

The fact is that the usability of some of these pandemic devices may not survive the awful time we are in. For example, there is little evidence that we need to put on portable air purifiers, such as the sample offered by LG. Since science has increasingly shown that the virus spreads mainly through the air and not through surfaces, it is also not necessarily necessary to show diligent public disinfection, even though regular hand washing and hygiene awareness are important.

LG's PuriCare portable air purifier.

LG Electronics

Then think of the subtle tendencies to moderate our use of touch that was already going on.

Contactless payments have been around for a long time; large stores from 7-11 to Kohl’s now allow in-store customers to pay via an app. Some U.S. airports use digital tokens on a smartphone to verify their identity, which reduces the back and forth of handing over passports to agents. New apartments are increasingly equipped with keyless locks, which are automatically opened when you are nearby or activated via a smartphone. Restaurants pointed to menus (and sometimes also payments) obtained via QR codes on each table. Drone deliveries now carry the fantasy of a perfectly sterile supply chain, where no human ever has to touch an object. As we reported, this year they delivered everything from PPE to bagels with trials taking place in Virginia and Florida.

These are all the long-promised tendencies that are closely linked to the so-called ‘new normal’ of pandemic life: to stay at home where possible and always be vigilant about hygiene in the outside world.

Where working in close proximity to others is essential, computer vision companies now sell the ability of their artificial intelligence to monitor workplaces for adequate social distance or to wear masks. Amazon has already implemented the technology in Distances Assistant – in warehouses. This is not the only area in which Amazon revolves. The Echo Frames – basically a pair of glasses with Alexa – have been marketed as useful by Jeff Bezos’ company this year because they can be used without touch, a form of computer with which you can communicate under a face screen. Amazon’s cashless ‘Go’ grocery stores have continued to expand – and it suddenly looks more attractive than exposing you to a human supermarket worker.

These technologies have already been developed. But the necessity of the pandemic gave them a new opening to the public. In a time of social change, when people are forced to adopt new habits, technology enterprises are all too happy to include their systems of voice computers or computer vision in society. Or do we want computers that monitor the exact movements of each warehouse worker – how can that technology be used after the pandemic? – is another question. This is a question worth asking, because once we allow powerful new technologies into our lives, it’s harder to turn back the clock later.

Maybe one day we will wake up one day, let alone all our travel, work and shopping while barely encountering another organic entity. If so, the funny thing could be that it was the contactless, individualistic future we were already heading for. It just arrived a little sooner.