The global COVID-19 pandemic has created a greater need for alternatives to common daily practices to reduce the spread of the virus. One example that is getting a lot of attention is aerial display technology. This innovation would allow us to use machines such as ATMs, apartment entrance keypads or devices at hospitals and food factories without needing to touch a physical interface — a benefit for which there may be widespread demand in a post-COVID-19 world. As it happens, Mitsubishi Electric has been developing such technology for a few years now, positioning the company to become a leader in this field.
New Technology for a New World
Washing hands frequently, wearing masks, social distancing, and working from home — these practices have all become part of the "new normal" brought about by the global COVID-19 pandemic. Governments around the world have set out guidelines and rules to encourage private citizens and businesses to follow these practices. Meanwhile, tech firms are rapidly developing innovative technologies designed to help us adapt to a post-COVID-19 world.
Aerial display technology in particular could be a game changer for operators of ATMs and other machines featuring touchscreens that are used daily by a large number of people. Although timely, such technology is not new — Mitsubishi Electric has been working on it since 2015, long before COVID-19 forced us to avoid touching surfaces in public as much as possible.
"Initially, we were simply thinking of creating an entirely new type of large-scale display that would take the world by storm — a natural progression from our Diamond Vision large-scale LED screens," says Hayato Kikuta, an engineer at the company’s Advanced Technology R&D Center. "But when we noticed how ubiquitous touchscreens were becoming, we began to consider the use of aerial displays in machines operated by touchscreens. Around 2018, we started developing a touchless interface that incorporates aerial display technology."
The aerial display team initially anticipated installing the technology on a localized level and under limited conditions at industrial plants and medical facilities with strict health and hygiene standards. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has convinced the team that the need for products incorporating this technology will increase in a wide range of fields and markets. They are now considering accelerating development of their project.
A High Degree of Flexibility
Mitsubishi Electric’s aerial display technology incorporates two elements: the ability to project an aerial image and the ability to allow users to "touch" the image.
The first involves a retro-reflector that reflects incoming light back in the same direction so that the image is projected in the air directly in front of the user. The second element involves a depth sensor that can detect the spatial position and movement of the user’s fingers. This is what would allow a user to interact with the aerial image.
Other types of aerial display technology also exist. However, Kikuta says the use of a retro-reflector gives their technology a major advantage.
"Aerial display technology using a retro-reflector makes it easier to adjust the image size," he explains. "It allows us to produce something as large as a 40- to 50-inch aerial image that is comparable to large signage, and something as small as a 7- to 10-inch virtual touchscreen. There are no size restrictions, and projecting the image is simple."
"The range of visibility can also be adjusted so that only the person standing in front of the virtual touchscreen can see it. This makes it suited to ATMs and other machines that display sensitive information that users may not want others to see. Another security-related aspect of our technology is that because there is no contact between the user and the machine, the user does not have to worry about their fingerprints being lifted illegally by a third party."
One issue with virtual touchscreens is how to provide tactile feedback to the user. Kikuta says his team has developed an algorithm and sensing technology that make the user’s actions feel more intuitive, providing feedback that is on a par with that of physical touchscreens.
Preparing for a 2021 Launch
Mitsubishi Electric is aiming to commercialize its aerial display technology in 2021. Although the company is continuing to develop the technology for use in industrial plants, medical facilities, and offices as they initially intended, Kikuta says there is an urgent need for the technology to be more widely available.
"In the beginning, adapting this aerial display technology for general use was seen as more of a long-term goal," he says. "But today, in what some people are referring to as the ‘new normal,’ we are facing a reality where touchless interactions are becoming essential for everyday life. We need to focus more on meeting general needs, which will require tweaking the technology to suit each purpose. Establishments such as restaurants and public facilities each have different requirements."
Kikuta and his team are currently surveying employees at Mitsubishi Electric and its group companies, as well as those at other companies, to explore the nature of such requirements.
"It is essential that this aerial display technology is optimized for needs that people actually have," he says. "This requires a lot of research, including discovering what, in fact, these needs are. We integrate our technology with their products in ways that are more specifically tailored to the products’ users and applications. I strongly believe that if we want to successfully commercialize this technology, we must widen the scope of our research by surveying the needs of a diverse range of companies, including our own, and by visiting the actual locations where the technology will be used."
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