Feature

Hands off: can touchless experiences still be fully immersive?

Low-contact events are one way the experiential industry can adapt to ensure it is 'Covid-secure'.

The Creation of Adam
The Creation of Adam

Look – but don’t touch. This simple expression, often said to children with sticky fingers, is now something many of us are trying to implement in our lives. When out on the high street, in supermarkets or braving public transport, due to the coronavirus pandemic people are now keeping their hands to themselves as much as possible.

"Touchless technology is already a part of most of our lives – from contactless payments to Amazon Alexa, these devices and applications sync our lives online to our lives offline," Sebastien Jouhans, creative technology director at Genuine X, Jack Morton's innovation practice, explains.

The question is: can the same contactless interfaces become ingrained in brand experiences and offer the same level of meaningful interaction as a traditional experiential activation?

Jouhans continues: "To create successful and engaging environments, the technology will need to enhance the experience as opposed to cripple it. People use touchless technology, such as contactless payments, because it’s convenient and frictionless. The same rules will need to apply – it can’t just be built because of safety.

"We anticipate that brands will be drawn to the novelty at first, but it will eventually become the new norm and we’ll see a permanent shift – new devices replacing older tactile ones, especially if brain-computer interfaces become more widely adopted. However, all of these touchless innovations need to be well-executed and intuitive. Poor user experience will only create a bad impression, which can in turn negatively affect the brand."

Does the loss of touch come at a cost?

Sam Bompas, director at Bompas & Parr Studio, thinks that touch holds the key to an immersive experience. 

"As a sense, touch is rarely regarded, yet your skin is the largest organ in the human body, making up 15% of our body weight and covering 12-20 square feet in surface area.

"The intense emotions touch enables is linked to the release of the hormone oxytocin, which acts much like an endorphin in the brain."

However, Liz Richardson, managing director and partner at HeyHuman, believes that touchless experiences can be engaging: "Just because you’re not physically lifting the needle and placing it on the proverbial vinyl doesn’t mean the music can’t move you."

The key to engagement, then, lies in utilising the consumer’s other senses. If we are visually and aurally stimulated, the loss of touch is mitigated. Richardson recalls a project for Green & Black’s in which HeyHuman conducted online implicit testing to find out which words, images and sounds people associated with chocolate. The findings were used to create an enhanced chocolate-tasting experience that was accompanied by a range of colours, rounded shapes and complementary soundtrack.

Richardson says: "Neuroscience allows you to understand what an engaging, safe experiential drive looks like, without blindly spending your budget. In a post-pandemic world, the best touchless experiences will deliver exactly what people want, rather than standing in as poor substitutes for touch."

The solution in devices

As well as utilising our personal devices, gesture-recognition technology, motion-capture technology and pressurised flooring could also hold the key to an engaging experience. Previously, Nestlé's Aero brand used the latter for a Westfield London activation to give out prizes based on the number of passers-by who stood within a designated area, while Jaguar produced a tennis app that enabled users to simulate hitting a ball using just their smartphone.

Graham Fink, chief creative advisor at Asteria and This Place, who developed a piece of technology that allowed him to create portraiture with his eyes, feels a touchless society may be looming due to the ongoing pandemic.

He jokes: "No hands, pencils, brushes or Covid-19 mess to clear up afterwards. That iconic Michelangelo painting of The Creation of Adam (pictured, top) now seems downright dangerous. God needs to get a bit more digital and a bit less hands on."

Fink's method of drawing uses eye-tracking technology in conjunction with infrared lights to track his gaze and turn it into lines on a digital canvas. He has created artwork live in a gallery setting – proof that art and touch are not mutually exclusive.

Currently, approximately 95% of households in the UK own a mobile phone and, as a nation, we spend two-and-a-half hours online on a smartphone each day. Leigh Gammons, chief executive at Cognifide, thinks the affinity we already have with our handheld devices could be the key to touchless experiences.

"The most effective use of technology in supporting this transition is mobile applications, which can help to deliver immersive touchless experiences and bring events to life without human contact," he suggests. "For example, many technologies will allow event attendees to ask presenters questions directly or take part in an interactive session, whereby the audience is polled throughout."

A 'not so new' normal

"Checking in at some airports is now done through face-scanning," Fink says, commenting on what many refer to as the "new normal". He points out that a "touchless future" may not be so different from aspects of the world we have become accustomed to: "For years, automatic doors have been opening for us before we’ve even got close to them."

Smartphones can be used in many ways to bridge the gap of physical interaction by providing an interface through which we can communicate, but our other senses will need to be activated in order for the experience to feel fully immersive.

So although we may now be less willing to tap, rub and pat everything we see, Bompas, who remains sceptical about our habits fully changing, has a prediction for the future.

"As touch becomes taboo, it holds more potential creatively," he says. "If you can engage the sense in a manner that is safe and respectful, it could feel more personal, meaningful and remarkable than before."