Touchscreens and Covid-19: Look but don't touch

The inexorable use of touchscreens has been brought to a standstill by the coronavirus outbreak. Could the last few months change our attitude to the technology forever? Paul Milligan reports.

Touchscreens are a part of our daily lives at work or at home. The technology is low in cost and easy to use, and its benefits hugely outweigh its costs. So, it’s win-win for everyone right? That was true until this year when the Coronavirus outbreak saw attitudes change overnight. The ability to catch or pass on the virus through touching hard surfaces was highlighted as a factor in it spreading, and suddenly we were warned against touching door handles, elevator lift buttons, handrails, and touchscreens.

Before the virus hit a report published by Kiosk Marketplace found that more than 70% of users were worried about using public touchscreens. Things haven’t improved over time as an Ultraleap survey of the UK and US public in May this year found that 80% of consumers think touchscreens are unhygienic and 50% would be unlikely to use them in the future. Now we know that touchscreens can contribute to viruses/infections being passed on, will this change our attitude to the technology? Will it affect sales of the technology, will buyers look elsewhere, or will the industry find a work around? I spoke to a selection of those involved with the supply and design of touchscreens to find out what happens next for the technology, in a post-coronavirus world. 

“I think people are going to be very wary of touching any kind of touchscreens at the moment. In a year's time if Covid-19 doesn't exist anymore I think that will change because I think people have quite short-term memories,” says Josh Bunce, CEO and founder of digital signage company Inurface Media.  “I think there's a fear of the schools going back and touching surfaces,” says Royce Lye, managing director of manufacturer BenQ UK.  “You've got this big sheet of glass and that brings into question the issue of how do I use that? When you've got five or six kids all up interacting with the panel (in a classroom) it becomes a health issue.”  

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The issue of time passing is a key one. As bad as this outbreak has been, we will get back to normal at some point. “In the long term, we don't really see a change in the attitude on how the technology is perceived. Touchscreens are an asset and something that is needed in some specific fields, so we will start using them again,” said Andrea Barbuti, global product manager – solutions, Philips Professional Display Solutions. 

Others were keen to point out that touchscreens are only part of a more wide-ranging hygiene conversation we all need to be having.  “I don't think it will change our attitude (to touchscreens), I think people have higher priorities in creating what is deemed a secure environment. When you walk into an office or classroom environment it already starts with your first touch with the door before entering the building,” says Remmelt van der Woude, CEO of manufacturer CTouch.  “It's not so much about changing the devices you work with, but about changing your behaviour and how you work with them.” 

If it is going to change our attitudes to touchscreens, albeit in the short-term at least, will it then have a negative effect on sales of devices? “No, the message we're getting from people we're talking to is that everything is postponed, I've not had cancellations, it's been postponements,” says Lye. We have 10 new models coming up (The T-Line touchscreen panels for education and C-Line for corporate).  And in our pre-launch activities we are still seeing a lot of interest,” adds Barbuti. “So we are confident that when they look down is finished and people will go back to work, sales will pick up again.”  

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Others like CTouch’s van der Woude believe the impact of coronavirus will linger. “If you look at Italy or Spain I’m happy they're not part of our growth strategy because I believe for Southern European countries the recovery will be even longer and will take as long as one and a half years.  I think the stronger economies as UK, Germany, Holland and Scandinavian will pick up around mid-2021.” 

As well as having an effect on our attitude and the sales of touchscreens, could this outbreak also change the content produced for them? If people are going to fear (in the short-term at least) touching a hard surface should we be looking at content that demands less interaction? “Potentially it's hard to see at the moment how you would use gesture to order food at the moment, where it might go is by going more mobile. So people will use their own devices which has only got their own bacteria on them. I think large QSR (quick service restaurant) businesses and retail businesses like a car showroom will have to clean touch tales every time they are used, especially if its somewhere with mass traffic. They will be pushing customers to use contactless technology like chip and pin because they're keen for people not to touch stuff,” says Bunce. It is something the industry is acutely aware of says Barbuti, “There's a thing called the ‘amount of clicks to get your destination’, that will be reduced at least in the short term.”

Jess Golding, B2B marketing manager for BenQ UK is adamant that interactivity doesn’t need to stop because of the outbreak, arguing that its mindsets that need to change instead; “We've got the tools to ensure you can still engage, you can still interact with lessons from your personal device and interactivity does not need to stop. I think how a teacher uses content will change rather than the content itself.” 

The job of a systems integrator is to find solutions to problems, and this is certainly one. So is it down to SIs to come up with new ways to put minds at ease around touchscreens, or should manufacturers be leading the way here? “I personally don't think you'll have a manufacturer that will come up with fix, it's all too short (a timeframe) at the moment, someone like Samsung or NEC need to invest in solutions but they are such big entities they will be slow to react. What will happen is someone will come up with a solution, and manufacturers will buy it, like they buy a bracket or a media player, they will buy it and pull that solution together. I'm sure you'll get the odd integrator that will come up with their own solution, but for it to really work it needs to cost effective, and you’ll need to upsell lots of them,” says Bunce. It has to be a combined effort says

Shaun Markew, group sales and product director for Sahara, Sedao and Clevertouch; “Some of it is really easy fixes, for example we have documentation to show you how to install an 86-in screen and still be within the social distance measures. We’ve put people in touch with mobile lifts so you can do single man installs and answered lots of questions about how to give it a clean once it’s been installed. You can use alcohol wipes to wipe the surface including the corners, there's no problem with the small amount of residue or liquid that you can leave behind. You can wash the styluses because they're not an active device, it's just a tool. You can wear gloves, as well.”  

That isn’t to say AV companies haven’t responded quickly to this particular issue, they have, and in droves. DOOH media owner Ocean Outdoor has introduced plans for touchless advertising screens which use Ultraleap’s mid-air haptic technology to replace touchscreen activity across its retail and city centre portfolio. BrightSign has launched BrightMenu, where customers scan a QR code and receive a restaurant’s menu on their phone. BrightLink (also from BrightSign) is a touchless QR code scanning system that eliminates the need to physically engage with digital signage. ADT (part of Inurface Media), Asianda and NowSignage have all launched hand sanitiser stations with built-in information screens. And you only have to visit the Amazon website recently to be bombarded with hundreds of weird and wacky ‘contactless door openers’ being sold for use on public touchscreens. 

I think we can all dismiss oddly-shaped brass keys as a genuine solution to this issue, but are any of the contactless or ‘safe’ (we must say here no product is truly Covid-19 free yet) to manufacturers – gloves, pens/styluses, disposable pens/wooden sticks, anti-bacterial screen filters – actually financial viable or practical? “If you start to look at disposable pens that touch the panel then you need to look inwardly at your own cleaning regime within that classroom, because what you're not doing is changing the mindset of washing your hands often or using gloves. You are saying I'm not going to do any of those cleaning steps and I'm going to use a disposable pen, for me that's defeating the object, disposable pens are a ridiculous idea,” says Lye. It’s not just disposable pens that have issues adds van der Woude, “If you use active pens you are really condemned everybody to use the same pen because typically there’s just one active pen in the room.” Gloves are an option says Barbuti, “If you have gloves our touchscreens will still work” but he goes on to make the key point; “We don't really expect everybody will carry gloves with them just to use a touchscreen.”  

Clevertouch is looking at a couple of angles to solve this issue, “The first is can we make the screen and the surface antibacterial?” says Marklew. “Because what is currently out there in the market is not effective. The glass is dipped into a solution, how long that lasts is down to how long and how much it's been used. The maximum it’s going to last is 12 months, typically it’s probably substantially less, more like three months because you are constantly touching it and cleaning it and wiping it.”  

Clevertouch is currently evaluating a patented technology that is coated onto the glass surface and then baked at 400 degrees which lasts the life of the product. “We are doing some trials at the moment, but it does add cost to the product, so it then comes back to a commercial decision, do we think that the market will want that additional cost?” adds Marklew.   

Everyone we spoke to and judging by the products currently being launched into the market, the majority of solutions to this issue will be based around using your own device to control screens, either in retail situations, the classroom or the meeting room. Luckily for the industry this technology has been available in the proAV world for the last decade.  

It’s clear this is a big issue right now, not just for those selling touchscreens but for all of us, because we all use them every single day. When you examine this situation it’s really an issue of hygiene more than it is about technology. Technology is just one facilitator in spreading germs because it has become so entrenched in our daily lives. I’m sure facilities managers are having the same issues about handrails or door handles right now that we are about touchscreens.  The surveys mentioned at the start of this article show this was an issue before Covid-19 hit, it just wasn’t a priority. After all we have all been through for the past three months, we can now be sure it will be.   

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