Touchless and Short-Range Wireless: A Path to the New Normal?

Article By : Nitin Dahad

A snapshot of how haptics, BLE and UWB technologies could give the assurances needed to return to normality after Covid-19 lockdown...

As many countries gradually come out of lockdown, there is still going to be fear among many for a long time about going back to life as it was. Maybe it won’t be the same as it was, but one thing is certain: many people will want to feel assured when they go about their daily routines that they don’t face avoidable risks of picking up the virus and being part of the second wave.

To address this, many technologies are now being fast-tracked to deployment, some of which may not have seen such rapid market traction prior to Covid-19. But we’re in a new world where anything goes. I’ve listened to many debates about the widespread penetration of technology, data capture, and video platforms’ intrusion into our lives progressing unregulated with the subsequent dangers that possibly lie ahead in terms of privacy and security.

Wenjun Sheng, Telink Semiconductor

Two technologies that could play a key role in providing public assurances in daily life are touchless technologies, and short-range wireless technologies such as Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) and ultra-wideband (UWB).

Taking wireless technologies first, in an interview with this week, Wenjun Sheng, co-founder and CEO of Telink Semiconductor, cited examples where its BLE chips are in wearable devices enabling social distancing awareness and even enforcement of quarantine. One example is in Hong Kong’s BLE wristbands issued to incoming passengers to monitor and ensure adherence to the 14-day quarantine requirements. Another recent BLE-based wearable is the Bump device, which alerts people when they are too close. It is primarily designed to ensure workplace safety, much like the UWB-based SafeDistance wearable introduced by imec spin-off Lopos.

The argument for UWB rather than BLE is the greater accuracy that can be achieved with UWB. But Telink’s Sheng said that in reality, in real-life practical situations, UWB can still creep up to 10s of centimeters accuracy while BLE incorporates features that can improve the accuracy to around 1 meter. It then depends on the trade off that can be achieved between accuracy and power consumption. With its BLE business growing by 50% every year, Sheng told us that Telink is working on using algorithms in its devices that could increase the accuracy of its devices to match the accuracy of UWB devices.

The BLE wristbands which passengers arriving in Hong Kong must wear for the 14-day quarantine period (Image: Office of the Government Chief Information Officer)

The touchless path to seamless user experiences

Another area that could provide a path to providing consumers further assurance to return to some kind of normal is touchless technologies. According to research carried out by Ultraleap, the haptics technology developer, the public are concerned about the risk of picking up bacteria from touchscreens, saying the average supermarket check-out touchscreen is used as often as 350 times a day by different consumers, which means the screen can easily be contaminated.

Touchscreens invariably have bacterial colonies on them, and a study indicates touchless interfaces would give the public assurances they would be more hygienic (Image: Ultraleap)

Setting the background, the company said a study published in the American Journal of Infection Control indicated 100% of the 17 public grocery store touchscreens tested were found to have bacterial colonies on them and 59% were found to have dangerous bacteria, such as e-coli. Of the 17 hospital-based touchscreens tested, all of them also had bacterial colonies. In the UK, a 2009 study of London’s public transport network and a public space in a hospital showed that more than 60% of touch surfaces had high levels of bacterial contamination.

In its research among 538 consumers in the UK and US, Ultraleap said only 12% believed that touchscreens in public spaces are hygienic, while more than 82% on average (79% in the US and 85% in the UK) were confident that touchless interfaces would be more hygienic and give them better protection.

In its white paper with the results of the study published this week, Ultraleap said the three main alternatives to touchscreens are gesture control, which tracks the position of a user’s hands; voice control, using voice recognition software; and mobile apps used to connect to public screens. The firm obviously points to the data suggesting touchless gesture-based interfaces are expected to be preferred as a future option over touchscreens, counter service, or mobile apps. It believes gesture control technologies will play a significant role in restoring consumer confidence in retail and other public environments in a post-Covid-19 world.

Ultrleap’s Rigel module captures the movement of a user’s hands and fingers and can be retrofitted to existing concepts and hardware to enable touchless interfaces (Image: Ulrealeap)

It’s hand-tracking module, the Ultraleap Rigel, can be retrofitted to existing concepts or hardware and is designed for integration into both consumer and enterprise grade products. It captures the movement of a user’s hands and fingers, being able to discern 27 distinct hand elements in a 160×160° field of view and tracking up to 75cm. With a 90Hz refresh rate on USB2 and low-latency software, the time between motion and photon falls beneath the human perception threshold.

Mechanical buttons are also an area where the need to touch can be eliminated. Cirrus Logic this week announced its CS40L25 family of boosted haptic drivers to enable OEMs to create customized user experiences beyond the single-action response of mechanical buttons. These can help create context-aware virtual buttons for almost any surface. The company said many smartphone designers are leading this behind-the-screen design evolution to increase haptic feedback solutions by replacing peripheral button functions. Automobiles, PCs, wearables and game controllers are also moving beyond traditional button interfaces to incorporate non-mechanical haptic feedback.

Cirrus Logic’s CS40L25 products integrate a high-performance haptic driver, a digital signal processor and a boost converter (Image: Cirrus Logic)

Its CS40L25 products integrate a high-performance haptic driver, a digital signal processor and a boost converter. The devices are resonance-aware, drive high-performance linear resonant actuators (LRAs) and voice coil motors (VCMs), and enhance user experiences by supporting unique/pre-stored haptic waveforms. Ultra-low latency provides real-time control of the haptic motor. This provides users with a more immediate sensation or response. Closed loop algorithms maximize LRA effectiveness and enable strong and consistent haptics with a crisper, less “buzzy” effect.

Cirrus Logic said it recently started sampling its next-generation haptic product, which integrates force sensing and a haptic driver. The single-chip device is anticipated to improve performance, reduce power consumption and simplify system design with up to a 50-percent reduction in the overall footprint of a smartphone haptic subsystem. The haptics technology market is expected to grow by US$13.58 billion during 2020-24, according to market research firm Technavio, indicating a 16% CAGR growth. It said key players include AAC Technologies, Alps Alpine, Analog Devices, Cypress Semiconductor, Dongwoon Anatech, Imagis, Immersion and Microchip.

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