The way we communicate with the world continues to change. Touch-based interfaces grew exponentially from 2008 to 2019. All this changed with the emergence of a pandemic in 2020. The demand for touchless technologies skyrocketed across all businesses as safety considerations forced companies to rethink customer and employee interactions.
In the consumer landscape, individuals were already growing accustomed to conversational interfaces such as Alexa, Google and Apple’s Siri. Voice interfaces are also one way to achieve touchless enterprise use cases, such as starting a video conference. However, voice is limited to only certain types of interactions and environments. Meanwhile, cameras support creating touchless applications, but many companies worry about potential privacy concerns with facial recognition.
As a result, organizations across the globe are enabling touchless solutions with a wide range of existing radio technologies, such as Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), Near Field Communications NFC and Bluetooth, to fulfill the need for touchless solutions. Businesses have added touchless solutions that range from kiosks to conference rooms to curbside delivery. For example, organizations use NFC for mobile payments, QR codes for restaurant menus and Bluetooth beacons for proximity. In 2020, a prominent US automaker created a social distancing solution that used a BLE system to deliver a social proximity alarm to a smartwatch, alerting workers if they are too close to another person in the facility.
Today’s wireless options enable touchless use cases but have limitations
While these solutions created the foundation of today’s touchless environments, it’s clear that these solutions weren’t designed nor optimized for creating a touchless world for health and safety. For example, RFID was primarily designed for asset tracking, identification of animals, and proximity cards such as IDs. However, RFID’s not the right solution to support a touchless interaction use case, such as navigating and selecting options on a kiosk. A gesture recognition system is more appropriate for use cases that require making a selection.
Certain wireless technologies also require the user to have an intelligent device with connectivity. NFC, widely used for contactless payments today, requires a person to have a smartphone and application designed to use NFC. This radio technology is also limited in the types of use cases it can provide because the user must be within a 10 cm proximity to a reader to take any action. Meanwhile, Bluetooth’s original design remit focused on creating technology for wireless headsets. Perhaps the biggest issue with using any of these technologies is that they were all designed with communication in mind.
Let’s take an example of where a company wants to enable touchless access to a building. Using Bluetooth access control or RFID, a company can allow touchless sign-in or entry into a facility for employees. However, it can’t help an individual select a destination in the elevator without touching a button.
Research and standards work will provide advanced touchless options
Realizing the existing constraints of today’s touchless wireless solutions, technology researchers are developing solutions specifically designed to support the unique requirements of touchless use cases. While commonly associated with 5G networks, millimeter-wave technology possesses numerous properties that make it ideal for supporting touchless interactions. Unlike “conventional” frequency bands used by broadcasting systems and Bluetooth, the millimeter-wave band offers the wide bandwidth necessary to support high-speed transfer rates for communication applications and the more precise resolution required by sensing applications.
Advances in computing and manufacturing will allow technology companies to develop extremely compact chips with many antennas. With current manufacturing, a company can place between 4 to 256 antennas on a single chip. These densely packed components enable narrow transmit and receive beams in many directions, improving sensing information from multiple angles and directions. Researchers are also designing technology to consume less power within a given range.
Millimeter-wave uses the same operating principles as radar for proximity and movement detection. By using increased bandwidth, the system offers greater resolution for improving detection accuracy. The higher resolution makes it suitable for 3D sensing of finger motions, hand swiping, gestures and even vital sign monitoring. Millimeter-wave can improve spatial accuracy over a broader range of distances enabling multiple use cases such as presence detection, counting the people in a room, and defining the proximity of people within a specific area. For example, millimeter-wave technology can be used for new close proximity use cases such as vital sign monitoring and gesture recognition for truck drivers ( if the driver gets within 5 cm of the sensor.) In a healthcare scenario, it could provide heart rate monitoring and touch-free interfaces for clinicians.
Often, user anonymity is preferred to preserve privacy and comfort. Unlike mobile devices and facial recognition, touchless technologies provide the additional benefit of retaining anonymity by recognizing the presence or gestures of an individual without explicitly identifying them. Additionally, cameras don’t work well in the dark, whereas millimeter-wave would work in all situations
However, design work still needs to be completed to overcome the challenges of traditional millimeter-wave technologies used in sensing, such as FMCW. For example, FMCW systems do not typically incorporate coexistence. As a result, their performance degrades in dense deployment scenarios or situations where multiple systems operate at the same frequency band. Researchers are working within standards bodies such as the 802.11 working group to develop features such as WLAN sensing to address these challenges. It’s an amendment to the standard that seeks that seeks to define standardized waveforms and protocols that would enable 802.11 technology to better support sensing applications.
By being a standardized technology, 802.11-based sensing can become more widely available and lower cost than other sensing technologies. 802.11-based sensing also has other technical advantages over other sensing technologies. It incorporates robust coexistence mechanisms and enables communications and sensing applications to be supported with the same chip. The outcome should produce a standard that enables radar-like applications in various bands such as 2.4, 5, 6 and 60 GHz bands, and that can make use of access points and clients alike to address a broader set of use cases.
The road ahead
It’s difficult to predict the future and anticipate what’s coming next, but it’s clear that touchless technologies of all kinds, from cameras to RF solutions, will be part of that future. Regardless of the differences between wireless technologies, the combined benefits of improved safety and convenience mean touchless modes will become a standard offering across industries. Companies will continue to use a mix of a suite of wireless technologies to deliver ubiquitous touchless access. Still, they will seek out technologies designed with touchless use cases in mind. Research on crafting millimeter wave solutions for touchless systems promises to provide many performance benefits. As the touchless trend continues to surge, it’s a great time to explore touchless technology options and build a strategy for the future.
Looking for more information, check out these:
A. Two standards body efforts.
B. The Wireless Broadband Alliance at https://wballiance.com/resource/wi-fi-sensing/
C. This Intel Touchless Technologies White Paperhttps://www.intel.com/content/dam/www/public/us/en/documents/pdf/the-need-for-enabling-touchless-technologies-whitepaper.pdf