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TECH LAB

Hands off: It’s time to go touchless

The pandemic has accelerated contact-less technologies in offices and stores

Things like touchless entry systems, elevators, payment terminals -- even vending machines -- are poised to become far more common.
Things like touchless entry systems, elevators, payment terminals -- even vending machines -- are poised to become far more common.JARED SOARES/NYT

During the COVID-19 lockdown, I’ve almost forgotten what it feels like to pay for something with cash, or to press an elevator button. For many of us, these routine acts aren’t coming back. In the name of cleanliness and convenience, we’re migrating toward a hands-off world.

Consumers are coming to depend on contactless payment methods such as Apple Pay and “tap-and-go” credit cards. The credit card company Visa says US usage is up by 150 percent since last year, while rival Mastercard says 51 percent of its US users have gone touchless.

Fear of COVID-19 infection is driving the rapid US uptake, according to Richard Crone, a mobile payments analyst. “What would have taken five years to achieve . . . has been compressed into two months,” he said.

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Contactless credit cards, sometimes called tap-and-go cards, are also on the rise. Because you can lightly tap them on the terminal or even hover them above it, the transaction is a lot cleaner than sliding a card into a slot ― ”a viral Petri dish,” as Crone calls them ― or punching a grubby PIN pad.

These cards are hugely popular worldwide. But only last year did US banks began pushing them hard — just in time for the coronavirus. For example, half of the 4 million debit cards issued by Citizens Bank are now contactless. Customers “don’t want to touch anything,” said Eric Schuppenhauer, president of consumer lending.

And in April, Citizens began issuing contactless credit cards, with about 60,000 now in use. Schuppenhauer said that 40 percent of customers who can make contactless purchases are doing so, and largely because of COVID-19. “They don’t want to touch anything,” he said.

Bank of America began issuing touchless Visa credit and debit cards in Boston, New York, and San Francisco last year, and in 2020 it will upgrade existing customers throughout the United States.

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And don’t forget the many retailers such as Starbucks that now offer custom smartphone apps that let customers pay by displaying a bar code on a phone. We’re quickly running out of reasons to touch a payment terminal ever again.

Of course, we still expect to touch things in our workplaces — the desk, for instance, or the computer keyboard. But must we touch anything else in the building?

Engineers have been trying to create the hands-off office for years, but not for reasons of health. For some, it’s all about efficiency, by eliminating the need to push elevator buttons or even flip light switches.

“Everything that impedes your flow through a space is considered noise,” said Lee Billington, director of connected experiences for the architectural firm Gensler. “It costs time.”

For Robert Hemmerdinger, chief sales and marketing officer for Delta Controls, which makes smart-building technology, it’s about beauty. His company’s clients want to get rid of “wall acne,”he said — that is, the switches, dials, and buttons that deface their nice, clean walls.

Touchless buildings controlled through smartphones can solve both problems and prevent COVID infection as well. Billington is working with clients on systems that would track the unique Bluetooth radio signal from each worker’s phone. That signal would automatically unlock the proper doors and call up an elevator to take the worker to the correct floor. No contaminated keypads in sight.

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Delta Controls has already sold thousands of its O3 Sensor Hub systems, which automatically manage temperature and lighting in offices and conference rooms. There’s no need for dirty wall switches; everything is controlled through a smartphone app.

And if you’re thirsty, you won’t have to touch the drinks machine. Boston water cooler company Bevi now offers a hands-free dispenser. You use a smartphone camera to scan a bar code on the machine, and your phone displays all the available drink options. Tap the screen to fill ‘er up, and all you ever touch is the drinking cup.

It has taken a deadly pandemic to get our attention, but the move toward touchless tech is decades old. Self-opening doors became popular in the 1950s, and automatic faucets and toilets made their debut in the ’80s. Both concepts rely on sensors that detect a person’s movements.

But body motions can take you only so far. Remember Microsoft Kinect, the next big thing of 2010? Kinect used an array of cameras to track body movements and let people play games by making hand gestures. The company sold millions of them, before users realized how hard it is for a computer to understand a raised finger or a clenched fist.

Speech is better; you can tell the machine exactly what you want. Today, one out of four US households has a voice-controlled smart speaker, capable of playing music on command or remotely starting the car. But speech control doesn’t work well in noisy environments, or where privacy is needed.

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Often, the best hands-off solutions aren’t totally hands-off. Instead, we rely on objects that nobody touches but us — smartphones and smart cards. They’re becoming the digital equivalent of gloves and face masks, a final line of defense against a virus-tainted world.


Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.