Handsfree operation for kiosks, medical devices, and public touchscreens. Buying groceries at the store, ordering fast food from a kiosk, or checking-in for a flight are everyday activities for many. Following the outbreak of COVID-19, however, these seemingly ordinary tasks took on a new dimension — touch, and to be specific, the avoidance of it.
As the coronavirus switched gears from a localized outbreak to a pandemic, our collective awareness of touch — and how we spread germs and disease through this deeply human gesture — became instantly heightened.
In this post, I address how devices equipped with eye tracking can prevent the spread of germs by offering touchless and handsfree interaction. And while I’d say it’s possible to implement our technology in just about any machine interface, its addition to medical devices, public touchscreens, and information kiosks are top of mind right now.
As COVID-19 spread, we all became a part of the prevention process. Slowing transmission by keeping our hands clean, and where possible, by staying at home, social distancing, and wearing protective clothing.
In late March, a news reportage Broadcast by Sky News caught my attention. It tells the story of the Cotugno Hospital in Naples, an infectious disease center that put special measures in place to handle the outbreak. Unlike so many other health services around the world at the time, no member of the medical team at this Italian institute had been infected by the virus. ICU staff wore heavy-duty personal protection equipment (PPE), waterproof suits with integrated full-face shields and respirators resembling gas masks. The precautions and time-consuming protocols this hospital put into place were keeping staff healthy.
This broadcast made me think about how eye tracking could help — not just the immediate sort of support needed by the frontline, but long-term sustainable solutions that will enable us to live with and deal with these types of viruses.
At Tobii, we’ve spent two decades testing and refining eye tracking. We aim to make this technology as universally applicable as possible — for all machines and all industries. Today, it works for the broadest range of people, irrespective of eyewear, presence of makeup, dirt, and ambient light conditions. Some of our healthcare partners have added eye tracking to their systems, allowing clinical staff to carry out their tasks without having to touch a range of buttons or peripherals. These successes and the global focus on preventing the spread of germs have led me to believe that eye tracking will play a significant role in the development of next-gen devices. By being able to control a device with your gaze, you could, for example, overcome some of the constraints posed by working in restrictive PPE, especially when wearing multiple pairs of gloves. And that such handsfree operation not only helps to stem the spread of germs but also reduces the need for cleaning and glove changing — lowering stress levels in hospitals.
Outside of the healthcare sector, concerns about the use of public touchscreens are growing. For me, these kinds of self-service devices are great because they improve flow. They help prevent those snaking lines from forming at airport check-ins, ticket booths, and fast-food restaurants. I like self-service kiosks because of the convenience they provide. And I am sure there are many benefits for businesses, such as efficient management of demand, reliable sales data, crew reductions, and fewer person-to-person interactions. But COVID-19 has presented new challenges for the touchscreen era. I’ve seen many articles about touchscreens and how, even in the battle against germs, they remain safe… so long as they are kept clean. Eye tracking could be a useful addition to these kinds of devices because it enables touchless interaction — calming consumer fears about contamination, providing a safe alternative for people at risk or during flus season while ensuring the continued adoption and development of self-service kiosks.
But eye tracking is not the only technology that provides touchless interaction. Gesture-based technologies, for example, allow users to swipe and select, to interact with a machine by moving their hands in the air. Near-field communication supports contactless payments and touch-free keycards. But these technologies don’t deliver handsfree operation, which is often desirable in environments where hands are busy, cleanliness is critical, and where additional peripherals or control devices are undesirable.