Touchless Elevator Concept researchers take us behind the scenes of their process

The Touchless Elevator Concept was developed by GI member Tanay Singhal, Research Intern for the Haptic Computing Lab, and co-author Mahika Phutane, a PhD student at Cornell doing research in HCI and Accessibility. Their concept uses mid-air haptic technology to eliminate our need to touch elevator buttons, featuring touchless tactile braille as well as audio feedback for the visually impaired, intuitive gestures for opening/closing doors, and a lively button magnification on hover for improved accuracy. A story about this work is featured on the Waterloo Homepage: Elevating haptics.

Read Tanay Singhal and Mahika Phutane's answers to the questions below to pull back the curtain on their research process and discover how they developed the Touchless Elevator Concept...

What were your personal motivations for the project? Why do you care?

Tanay

Initially, we were motivated by a competition hosted by Ultraleap to develop touchless public interfaces in a post-COVID-19 world. The chance to reimagine the future excited me, and I immediately pulled Mahika into this project. 

We recognized that for many, using an elevator is a daily necessity -- on average, a single elevator carries about 20,000 people per year in the United States. However, a number of research studies show elevator buttons are a huge sources of contamination, especially in hospitals, even in a world without COVID-19.

But this is not just about elevators -- 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. Think about how the iPhone removed the physical keyboard from Blackberries and replaced it with an adaptable virtual keyboard. The iPhone keyboard can turn into an emoji keyboard, change languages, or even disappear when you watch a video or play a game. We question how existing public interfaces can benefit from a similar flexibility.

Mahika

This project began through a competition hosted by Ultraleap, where they challenged developers to innovate public touchless interfaces in a post-COVID world using their hand-tracking technology. One of the first thoughts that went through my mind was, “All public interfaces are required to have braille in order to meet community guidelines and be accessible! With such restrictions, how can we make a public interface touchless?” And I believe this is where my personal motivations lie in this project. Growing up with family members, friends, and colleagues with special needs, and witnessing inaccessible design on many occasions, I became motivated to design with accessibility and inclusive design at the core.  

The day before we conceived this idea, I travelled in an elevator to attend my dentist appointment, where I saw that the elevator control panel was covered with a thick transparent plastic sheet. I wondered how the braille could be felt. When Tanay shared that he had access to the mid-air haptics device, I immediately thought of generating Braille with this technology, and to our joy, we found previous research to solidify this! 

While the idea of a touchless elevator brought excitement and innovation to a space that hasn’t seen much change, our motivations were intrinsic-- this project allowed Tanay and I to develop as computer scientists, as designers, as researchers, and as human beings. This is what meaningful research and development is meant to do!

How does this project connect to your individual research plans/goals?

Tanay

I am doing research in haptics (technology related to the sense of touch); Mahika’s research is in accessibility and inclusivity in HCI. This project was a perfect harmony of our fields.

On a personal level, Mahika and I both have family and friends who are visually impaired or use a wheelchair. 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.

Mahika

My research is focussed on Human-Computer Interaction and Accessibility. This project fits perfectly in the realm of what I can contribute! In the future, we hope this project will act as a catalyst to not only elevator innovation, but an innovation to what virtual interfaces could look and feel like.

How/why did you carve out time to be able to work on this?

Tanay

I blocked off 9 AM - 5 PM for my regular research project and spent the rest of the day from 5 PM to beyond midnight working on this project. Mahika and I would meet up every day at 9 PM to sync up on what we have done and what we will do next. As you can imagine, our schedule was exhausting but the work was quite fulfilling. It was completely worth it at the end when we had created something we were both proud of.

Some feedback we received:

  • “I think it’s brilliant and, as a handicapped person, on behalf of the handicapped community, Thank you”
  • “The accessibility features for visual impairments seem really good, in particular. The magnification will help everyone, but especially people who are partially sighted. I’m also really curious to try out the haptic braille when I get a chance” 

Mahika

Despite my ongoing research involvements, this project really became my priority as we were digging deeper into the idea. Especially seeing the state of COVID around the world, it was quite gratifying to do our part as computer scientists, and work on a project that could limit the spread. As we continued developing the concept, Tanay and I quickly realized that this was the start of a new interaction mechanism altogether!  

How did the two of you connect and decide to collaborate?

Tanay

I met Mahika at a hackathon hosted by the University of Toronto a few years ago. Since then, we have remained in touch and seen each other grow. We have remained connected by our passion for the role that new technology such as AR/VR, brain machine interfaces, and haptics could play in the future. 

We wanted to reimagine public interfaces while still keeping them accessible for those who rely on their sense of touch. I believed Mahika would be the perfect partner for this project: I am doing haptics research; she specializes in accessibility and inclusivity in HCI. When I reached out to her, she was absolutely thrilled to be a part of it! 

Mahika

Tanay and I met at a hackathon at the University of Toronto a few years ago and became friends after connecting on similar aspirations. Though we attend different universities, we keep in touch and constantly encourage each other to strive to be better versions of ourselves, through our work, our research, and personal lives. When Tanay sent me a link to Ultraleap’s competition, I was very excited about the premise and immediately started brainstorming ideas! With the pairing of haptics and accessibility, the two pillars of our project and our respective research areas, this collaboration was inevitable! We quickly set up a timeline and got to work! 

How did you divide the work between the two of you?

Tanay

We developed the idea and pitch together. After that, Mahika primarily did the literature search and directed/created our demo video, while I developed the contactless elevator concept and wrote most of the textual descriptions (including the Medium article). Despite different responsibilities, we constantly synched up, helped each other, and gave feedback. Over the course of the project, we also consulted those with accessibility requirements from our personal and professional network to make sure the design actually fits their needs.

Mahika

Tanay took responsibility for developing the demo for this project, and writing up the documentation on GitHub and Medium to explain our concept. Meanwhile, I consulted literature to ground our idea and support our design choices. I also created and put together the YouTube video that tells the story of why we chose elevators and also why believe this design is about more than just elevators. Though we both had our plates full with work, we were consistently supportive of each other and never let the stress get to us. 

We consulted our idea with friends, family and colleagues to get a sense of how intuitive the user experience is. We iterated on the negative feedback and didn’t hesitate to go back to the drawing board. Ultimately, we are very proud of the work we have been able to do. What excites us more is that this is merely the start of a great collaboration, and we intend to take this idea beyond the prototype phase!


touchless elevator

Read more about their Touchless Elevator Concept on Medium where they explain how they see this idea as a starting point for many more intuitive and accessible contactless interactions. The source code for this concept is available on Github.

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