Touchscreens…. Is there an alternative?

30 October 2020
By Ed Notley

The current virus scare has made us all acutely aware of the “hands, face and space” saying that characterises us being wary of touching anything in the public space. All of a sudden nothing can be touched for fear of catching the latest bug. However, in the many decades since my Mother taught me about hygiene and washing hands and food etc it has always been the same – people have to take care of their own hygeine. Before the current virus scare we had often read about surveys of public facing equipment including touchscreens where the survey had found traces of unmentionable items on them. This, in my view said / says more about cleaning regimes (or lack of them) than the urgent need, “to find different equipment to obviate touch”. The information we received those years ago caused us to make the decision to add antimicrobial films to our kiosks back then (see further on). 

Some have suggested to us that a touchless touchscreen would be appropriate for self service kiosks these days. It sounds an obvious thing to say and then do. The problem with this is several fold. The touchless kiosk sounds just the thing until you come to actually think about what it will mean. First, the alternatives to touch (such as they are) are far from accurate in many cases and the users will also need to learn a new routine for accessing kiosks – depending on what alternative technology maybe used. Inevitably, the technology will be different from kiosk to kiosk. “Air gesture input” where waving hands in the air provides input, for example – will produce questions like  “which way do I wave them and how does this change from kiosk to kiosk and what constitutes a “click””?  A remote mouse loaded onto a users’ mobile phone – likely to be more accurate but when the user is trying to get a self service job done at a kiosk – do they want to download an app to achieve a remote mouse to use the kiosk. The next kiosk undoubtedly will have a different app download to achieve the same thing?   All of this loads the poor old user with actions or learning they don’t need or want. The likely outcome of this is for the user to walk off and find an older kiosk or find a person to serve them. Whereas, the good old touch screen is tried and tested, the same on each kiosk and everyone is familiar with technology. Touch is also extremely accurate and reliable. 

No, we don’t believe touch is going away anytime soon as it is the most practicable and cost effective and accurate method of inputting into self service kiosks –  in the same way as everyone uses their phones and tablets.  Of course, it is natural to say that anything that is touched by many in the public space will not be hygienic and be unclean. But in the same breath that would apply to most physical things being used in hospitals. However, in the event that these many items in hospitals are not easily replaced they are cleaned down with disinfectant materials or alcohol based products to good and effective advantage. The same is easily true of touchscreens on self service kiosks. In addition, even if touchscreens were replaced, other parts of the kiosk often have to be touched to effect or finalise a transaction, thereby defeating the object of a complete no touch kiosk.  

Whilst we have had one or two tentative enquiries for touchless kiosks they have not really been serious or ‘committed to the cause’ enquiries. In fact, the latest hospital enquiries and subsequent orders for check-in kiosks have not mentioned touchless at all and have been happy to place orders for kiosks with standard pcap touchscreens with a permanent antimicrobial finish applied.

Much of the input we hear about the public wanting touchless looks to be an emotional response to the question posed and is clearly an instinctive answer when asked.

The permanency of touchscreens can be explained like this: Firstly, touchscreens remain the most accurate method in human interaction with self service equipment. And second, touchscreens and their cleanliness are far more controllable than any human to human interaction is or will be.

For accessing digital content, touch continues to be the best universal means for indicating preference or making decisions. Touch technology does not care about environment and is not affected by odd lighting situations, noise, or any other potential phenomena surrounding or close to it. And it does not need training of any kind. The technology is now at a point where low cost kiosks have fast and accurate touchscreens. Transactions using the technology to interact with a kiosk are made in seconds. Kiosks are increasingly transactional rather than casual info providers, therefore the speed of input and feedback and the finalising of a transaction is the most important item for the users.

No, our view is that touchscreens are here to stay – with sanitising films applied and a good old fashioned wipe down regularly.

Furthermore, touch technologies are far more inclusive. Its easy to point at a list of languages to find your own on a screen (than have to talk this into a kiosk say) whereupon you are on home ground as far as input is concerned.  For those in a wheelchair or disabled, producing hand gestures to make screen inputs is not likely to be helpful to them and is more likely to make them feel excluded.

It is strange to me when I consider the “politically correct” suggestions we hear about needing touchless inputs. They tend to come from oblique parties suggesting that this ought to be happening – but not from direct customers. Whereas, we as K4B have been applying AEGIS antimicrobial finishes to our touchscreens for more than 5 years now – because we believed in hygienic use. But, not one customer has asked for this nor commented upon it in the 5 years, and still has not since the virus breakout. Hygeine was as important then as it is now.  It will be interesting to see from here whether there is any real appetite for alternative screen input technologies until they can match the speed, ease and accuracy of the current touchscreen.