Writing Sample: Elevating Haptics

Originally published on the University of Waterloo Homepage, (July 31, 2020)

Motivated by prior research that reports elevator buttons as a huge source of contamination, a new study co-authored by Waterloo Faculty of Math student presents a touchless elevator concept to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Prior research shows that elevator buttons produce the highest rate of bacterial contamination (97 per cent) and can house more germs than toilet stall surfaces. However, for many people (especially health-care 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 (HCI), to develop a touchless elevator concept that will slow the spread of COVID-19.

Their method will see elevator buttons replaced with haptic technology, which are touch sensations transmitted through the air. Mid-air haptics focus pressure on your hands (like pulses) using high sound frequencies called ultrasonic waves.

“With this technology, you can feel three-dimensional shapes in mid-air without actually touching anything,” Singhal says, a Research Intern for the Haptic Computing Lab at the 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, 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,” Singhal says. The research pair were motivated after seeing how temporary solutions for containing contamination on elevators during 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,” Phutane says. “How can braille be felt through this covering?”

Singhal and Phutane have 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 elevator innovations and an innovation to what virtual interfaces could look and feel like.

“This is not just about elevators,” 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.”

So others can benefit from their findings and research, the team has shared their source code for this concept, which is available on GitHub.

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