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Touchless Technologies

Touchless Tech
By: Michael Hoban

Providing Valuable Tools for COVID-19 and Beyond

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the emergence of new touchless technologies has been a godsend for essential businesses and medical facilities, as well as for employers trying to navigate a safe return-to-work (RTW) strategy for their employees. Innovations such as thermal imaging temperature screenings, occupancy level tracking software, and secure building access using smartphones have given employees a degree of assurance that reasonable safeguards are in place in their work environments.

Even as the deployment of vaccines provide hope, those technical innovations will be key components as the world grapples with how to adjust to a “new normal.” A poll conducted by touchless screening system provider Evolv Technology and The Harris Poll in November 2020 indicated that 83% of the 1,500 adults surveyed (including parents of school children, attendees at ticketed events, and warehouse/distribution workers) said they were concerned not only about COVID-19, but also about the rise of mass shootings in the U.S. (661 in 2020 despite the lockdowns) and other forms of social violence. However, with new innovations in security and health touchless technology, “We find that 87% are likely to return to facilities and venues if there was a touchless security screening, and 85% are likely to return if there's some sort of walkthrough body temperature measurement,” said Erica Parker, managing director at The Harris Poll.


TOUCHLESS TECHNOLOGY

So what exactly is touchless technology? Proxyclick, a cloud-based visitor management solution that provides visitor registration, badge printing, and reporting for large and small companies worldwide, defines touchless technology as “any device that you can use or operate without needing to touch it. Standard human-machine interfaces in this niche include camera-based gestures, proximity-enabled screens, voice recognition, and eye-tracking tech.” And while many of the applications are straight out of 20th century science-fiction movies, the definition also includes more pedestrian devices, like motion-activated lighting and paper towel dispensers.

Visitor management software companies like Proxyclick and Envoy were able to adapt quickly to provide protocols for client companies when the pandemic hit. Such adaptations included employee health questionnaires that pre-screen for symptoms and workplace contact tracing, as well as enabling organizations to enforce density and social distancing policies to comply with local regulations. But the value of the software extends well past its COVID-19-related benefits, as it streamlines the visitor experience in commercial spaces while improving physical building security. The applications let employees, contractors, and visitors check themselves in and out using QR codes on their smartphones (or badges or key fobs), alerts team members when their guests/contractors arrive, and allows key documents such as NDAs or waivers to be signed ahead of time or at a touch-free kiosk upon arrival.


INCONSISTENT IMPLEMENTATION

As beneficial as the technology has been for many companies, adoption has not been universal, perhaps due to the low numbers of employees that have actually returned to the office to date. Tripp Guin, SIOR, principal of Tripp Commercial in Charlotte, N.C., says that he is seeing a number of adjustments in the COVID-19-era workplace, such as foot-operated doors, directional signage on floors, clear acrylic sneeze/cough guards, and a re-arrangement of desks to accommodate social distancing, but little in the way of touchless technology, even in a major market like Charlotte. “Tenants are inquiring about COVID-19-related preventative measures such as HEPA filters and central air filtration systems when touring prospective space, but they’re not requiring them as part of the deals as of yet,” says Guin. “I’ve done quite a few renewals since March of 2020, as well as a couple of relocations for office, flex space, and industrial users, and even though touchless is being discussed, it’s not been a requirement. Then again, I’m an [independent] broker so I’m not working that often with Fortune 500 companies.”

But the value of touchless technology from both a health and security perspective has not been lost on some of the industry’s largest office landlords, and appears to be the wave of the future. Boston Properties, Tishman Speyer, and EQ Office, as well as other major property owners, have begun to install the technology in select assets, with plans to add touchless sensing applications throughout their portfolios for new construction and when doing building upgrades.

BEYOND COVID-19

Even prior to COVID-19, the market for touchless technology was on a trajectory for spectacular growth. An April 2020 report by research firm MarketsandMarkets predicted that the touchless sensing market will reach USD $15.3 billion in 2025, more than double the USD $6.8 billion projected for 2020. Other research cites low cost, zero maintenance, reliability, ease of development and integration, enhanced user experience, the increasing digitalization across industries and the easy incorporation into mobile devices as key factors in the explosive market growth.

Two of the areas that present the most opportunity for growth are mobile access controls and smart buildings. Access control systems are obviously not new, but providers like Kisi and Openpath now offer cloud-based solutions that allow users to utilize their smartphones in place of key fobs or plastic cards. James Segil, president and co-founder of Openpath Security, says he got into the business three years ago because he was tired of carrying the easy-to-misplace badges and key cards everywhere, and was frustrated with the 40-year old radio frequency identification (RFID) technology that many access control systems still employ. The old-school badges are also not very secure, according to Sigel, as they are relatively easy to “copy and clone,” using unsophisticated technologies.

“We moved the credential—the access privilege—from just a key card alone, to a combination of key card with a photo badge as well as mobile phone—which makes a ton of sense since people don’t go anywhere without their phone. And today’s phones are essentially encrypted super computers. Apple Pay, credit cards, and facial recognition software are all on your phone, so they’re very secure devices,” he says.

Because Openpath is cloud-based, there are no servers to maintain, with the system consisting of easy-to-install smart readers and controllers that support touchless access with smartphones, cards, fobs, and Apple watch devices. Administrators can issue or update mobile access credentials in real time, rather than making physical changes to the key card or fob when the employee’s status or security clearance changes.

“A building, business, or company needs to align with the cybersecurity risks that we’re all dealing with, as well as the physical security risks like violence in the workplace, including active shooters,” says Segil. “And Openpath is a no-contact, no germ-exchange, completely hands-free device, allowing ingress and egress into the building. And that’s really magical for this whole return-to-work initiative that people are focused on.”


SMART BUILDINGS

The potential applications for touchless sensing appear to be limitless. Scott Martin, SIOR, president and CEO of InteliGlas in Pasadena, Calif., has developed a cloud-enabled unified smart building platform, InteliGlas, which fully integrates all building systems, provides sensory-capabilities, and puts all the data into the artificial intelligence system—dubbed RipleyAI™. “We’ve essentially created a virtual building engineer that’s there 24/7, that picks up on problems before they happen,” says Martin. “We remote-control and monitor the building, and take autonomous action when anomalies occur—all without a human going in there and turning a screw or pushing a button. We do it autonomously through artificial intelligence.”

In addition to the virtual engineer functions, the platform identifies energy inefficiencies throughout the building to provide significant savings. “And for the most part, we’ve made it simple. It’s really easy to install, it’s not invasive to tenants or costly to owners, and it’s simple to run. You don’t need a PhD or to be certified by Honeywell to run these things, it’s very intuitive.”

Up until recently, the various building systems have always operated independently, unable to “talk” with each other. But in the past year, Martin says, there has been an amplification of the number of startup companies in the smart space that have figured out how to take the various technologies from a building systems lineup—access controls, HVAC, lighting, and anything in the building that has an electrical pulse—and pull them all together using AI. “And once those things start taking off and gaining traction, they’re really going to revolutionize [the industry],” he asserts.

Martin says he conceived InteliGlas because “more and more tenants are looking for what I call that ‘Jetsons’ experience’.” For those not familiar with The Jetsons, the futuristic 1960s cartoon featured a main character named George Jetson. In the show’s opening, he flies to work, his vehicle parks itself, and he arrives at his desk on the building’s top floor—all without touching a single button.

“That reality is now,” says Martin. “And it’s all completely doable because of touchless technology.”




CONTRIBUTING MEMBERS

Tripp Guin, SIOR

Scott Martin, SIOR

 

Media Contact
Alexis Fermanis SIOR Director of Communications
Michael Hoban
Michael Hoban
michaelhoban@comcast.net

Michael Hoban is a Boston-based commercial real estate and construction writer and founder of Hoban Communications, which provides media advisory services to CRE and AEC firms. Contact him at michaelhoban@comcast.net