Elevating haptics: A touchless elevator concept proposes an accessibility-driven solution to slowing the spread of COVID-19

Friday, July 31, 2020

By Marisa Benjamin, Research Communications Officer, The Games Institute

Motivated by previous research that found that elevator buttons are a huge source of contamination, a new study co-authored by a Cheriton School of Computer Science student presents a touchless elevator concept to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Prior research shows that elevator buttons have among the highest rates of bacterial contamination — 97 percent — and can house more germs than toilet stall surfaces. However, for many people, especially healthcare and front-line workers, elevators are a daily necessity.

This realization prompted undergraduate computer science student Tanay Singhal and his research partner Mahika Phutane, a PhD student at Cornell University doing research in accessibility and human-computer interaction, to develop a touchless elevator concept that will slow the spread of COVID-19.

Their method will see elevator buttons replaced with haptic technology — touch sensations transmitted through the air. Mid-air haptics focus pressure on your hands using ultrasonic sound waves.

photo of Tanay Singhal and Mahika Phutane

L to R: Tanay Singhal (Cheriton School of Computer Science student and a research intern in the Haptic Computing Lab at Waterloo's Games Institute) and Mahika Phutane (Computer Science, Cornell University, Accessibility and Human-Computer Interaction Research)

“With this technology, you can feel three-dimensional shapes in mid-air without actually touching anything,” Tanay Singhal says, a research intern in the Haptic Computing Lab at Waterloo's Games Institute. “When you press an elevator button, you will feel touch sensations to indicate that you pressed it.”

The touchless elevator concept is designed for accessibility and inclusivity, with tactile braille touch sensations for the visually impaired, with audio feedback, intuitive gestures for opening and closing doors, and button magnifications for improved accuracy.

“When creating something as critical to people’s everyday lives as an elevator, we must absolutely design with usability and inclusivity in mind from the very start,” Tanay Singhal says.

The research pair were motivated after seeing how temporary solutions for containing contamination on elevators because of COVID-19 interfere with accessibility.

“I used an elevator to get to a dentist appointment and saw that the control panel was covered with a thick transparent plastic sheet,” Mahika Phutane says. “How can braille be felt through this covering?”

Tanay Singhal and Mahika Phutane created a YouTube video to tell the story behind their decisions, including why the authors believe this design is about more than just elevators. They hope the project will act as a catalyst beyond elevators and as an innovation to what virtual interfaces could look and feel like.

“This is not just about elevators,” Tanay Singhal says. “This is about a future of contactless public interfaces freed from the restraints of the physical world, designed with touch feedback and accessibility in mind.” The team has shared their source code for this concept, which is available on GitHub.

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