Touchless control panels for avoiding contaminated surfaces

Article By : Richard Quinnell

Design engineers are leveraging existing wireless and sensor technologies to create solutions for avoiding contaminated surfaces in elevators and kiosks.

The coronavirus has such robust transmissibility that keeping it contained is extremely difficult. That is stimulating a lot of system engineering efforts to make common user interfaces touch-free while employing existing technologies. Otherwise, in a public environment, it’s virtually impossible to keep sterile all the user interface touch surfaces, such as elevator buttons and interactive kiosks.

Holo Industries has developed a line of touch-free control panels for germ-free interactions, with the first two entries targeting elevators and kiosks for restaurants. The devices project a floating image of the controls that the user can activate and senses the user’s fingers as they “touch” these mid-air controls (Figure 1). A PC-based demo unit is now available for developers seeking to try out the technology and begin integrating it into their system designs. With no surfaces to get contaminated, the issue of sterilization becomes moot.

Special Projects Editor’s Note: This article is part of an AspenCore Special Project, a collection of interrelated articles that explores the anatomy of designs tackling the coronavirus pandemic. See all the articles in this Special Project below.

Figure 1 These touch-free control panels project a floating image that users can interact with, touching only thin air. (Source: Holo Industries)

These devices demonstrate the power of clever system engineering for creating rapid solutions to complex problems. Created in part as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the panels haven’t been developed from scratch. Rather, the developers employed two core products that already existed—in some cases, for years—and put them together with proprietary firmware and supporting elements to form new contactless touch panels.

One of the core products involved is the ASKA3D projection plate from Asukanet Co., available since 2017. This plate uses a transmissive dihedral corner reflective array to project an object’s image into space above the plate. The image is optically “real,” meaning that the light coming from the mid-air image travels to the eye in the same way that light from a physical object would travel, as shown in Figure 2. To the viewer, this appears as if the physical object were floating in space, allowing one to look at it from various angles to see around the sides and even to photograph it.

Figure 2 Each point on the projected image radiates light, as though it were a physical object. (Source: Asukanet)

The second key product is the zForce touch sensor from Neonode Technologies. It uses an array of infrared projectors and sensors to detect the spatial position of the user’s fingers as they pass through the sensing plane (Figure 3). The base technology, available since 2014, can determine “touch” location as well as estimate the “force” of the touch by measuring the depth of the intrusion into the sensing plane.

Figure 3 The zForce touch sensor uses an array of IR emitters and receivers to determine the object’s location, such as fingers, in its sensing plane. (Source: Neonode Technologies)

The creation of a control panel takes more than just combining these two products, of course. There are many design elements to consider and resolve, including the panel size, viewing angle, and user feedback as to what buttons they have pushed; how to let developers configure the virtual control panel; and the like. But the technical heavy lifting—the advanced technologies that generate the floating image and sensing the virtual button presses—are essentially off the shelf.

That’s the power and challenge of systems design: combining diverse elements developed by someone else into a functional solution to problems the element designers may never have imagined. In this case, by cleverly applying existing technologies and products, the developers at Holo Industries quickly created a control system that helps resist the spread of a virulent pathogen.

Rich Quinnell is a retired engineer and writer, and former Editor-in-Chief at EDN.

For further insights into the designs tackling the coronavirus pandemic, check out the other articles in this AspenCore Special Project:

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