Ali Foughi, NextInput CEO and Co-Founder
Mitra Purpur, Communications Specialist

The threat of COVID-19 has caused many of us to wonder how we may safely touch public surfaces that are integral to our everyday tasks. Whether we are checking out at grocery stores, touching keypads at ATMs and fuel-filling stations, or pressing elevator buttons, we’re worried about picking up germs that could make us or our loved ones sick. Even when businesses report that they clean these highly-touched surfaces, it is the norm to be skeptical of the surfaces’ cleanliness–and for good reason. These HMI (Human-Machine Interfaces) regularly contain mechanical buttons with gaps and crevices where viruses can migrate to, making germs challenging to reach when sanitizing with wipes or UV light. How can you rely on the public places you frequent to be safe when the mechanics and structures of these tools are predisposed to hiding viruses?

Traditional mechanical elevator panel compared to ingress-free and easily-sterilizable modern elevator panel, enabled by NextInput.

Luckily, NextInput, Inc., leader in MEMS-based sensing solutions, affirms that it is already possible to update these points of interaction to be trustworthy and safer for public use. The team has innovated and begun mass producing force sensing solutions that are hermetically sealed and gapless, eliminating crevices for COVID-19 and other germs to shelter in away from cleaning solutions. These 100% silicon sensors can replace any of the aforementioned Traditional mechanical elevator panel compared to ingress-free and easily-sterilizable modern elevator panel, enabled by NextInput. “traditional” buttons and switches with safe HMI that is ingress-free and designed to be able to be fully sterilized. Not only pertinent to the pandemic before us, this technological solution will also leave us better equipped for an uncertain future that could have recurring outbreaks or other public health crises.

How do gapless sensing solutions stack up against the mechanical buttons we all rely upon today? Compatible with any material (think glass, metal, carbon, plastic, etc.), the future of MEMS force sensing technology is limitless, capable of replacing everything from the buttons on your smartphone to the light switches in your office and the door handles on your future car– allowing you to obliterate pathogens with ease. This sensing solution is not merely safer by being seamless and fully sterilizable; on the contrary, it is also over ten times more reliable than mechanical buttons. Moreover, while traditional buttons tend to fail after 200,000-500,000 cycles of use, NextInput’s force sensors can last between ten million to over a hundred million cycles, making MEMS force sensors far more durable. Not only that, public accommodations and points of interaction often occur in the outdoors, making it crucial to verify whether technology is too fragile to endure inclement weather. NextInput’s technology can indeed withstand a slew of harsh elements because it is designed to be waterproof, dustproof, ice-proof, and extremely reliable at a wide range of high and low temperatures.

But are gapless force sensing solutions like NextInput’s the best option available to keep us safe during this pandemic? Capacitive touchscreens, printed resistive ink, ultrasonic gesture controls, and voice control all could theoretically address the predicament posed by the germfilled ingresses that surround mechanical buttons. Realistically, however, these competitors each have flaws that make them suboptimal when compared to MEMS-based force sensing solutions.

For instance, capacitive touchscreens (which you may recognize from many smartphones) are flawed in that they depend on skin-to-screen contact. In contrast, NextInput’s force sensing technology additionally works when you keep your protective gloves on, still functions when surfaces are wet, and can even recognize prosthetics, making them ADAcompliant. Another problem that capacitive touchscreens face is they are less secure and more vulnerable to hacking because they lack the ability to verify whether authentic physical force was used to press on-screen buttons. However, if force sensors were added to touchscreen machines like POS (Point of Sale) terminals, the devices would be able to detect the “intent” behind a touch to verify that a user deliberately pressed the screen, not a computer remotely breaking in. In summary, although buttonless capacitive touchscreens can similarly be sterilized and be useful for slowing the spread of COVID-19, force sensors are an optimal choice due to both their associated security and ability to recognize touch with or without direct finger contact.

Another competitor, printed resistive ink sensors, is fragile when compared to MEMS force sensors. Imagine bending a piece of paper coated in dried paint: the paint fractures and cracks. What resistive ink gains in simplicity, it loses in both accuracy (sensitivity) and durability in relation to MEMS solutions. Due to this vulnerability, printed ink sensors regularly fail due to temperature changes (which cause materials to expand and contract), making printed ink insufficiently versatile for use in outdoor or public surfaces. For example, printed ink has not passed the bar for automotive-use because vehicles heat up in the sun and cool at night, making them expand and contract. On the other hand, MEMS force sensing solutions do not face this predicament, as they have achieved AEC-Q100 qualification and are already successfully implemented in the automotive industry.

A third competitor, ultrasonic gesture controls (i.e. controlling tech with hand gestures), is not ready to be widely rolled out. This raises a problem because we need solutions for obstacles related to COVID-19 immediately. In addition, ultrasonic HMI lacks intent (unlike NextInput’s HMI), thus its use would be inappropriate for public spaces like elevators where just accidentally blocking a sensor or cleaning it could activate a false trigger. Even if ultrasonic controls were ready to be deployed in situations where false triggers are rare, everyone would have to learn its unintuitive controls for the technology to be useful. However, unlike the steep learning curve associated with ultrasonic controls, gapless sensing solutions like NextInput’s are intuitive because they look and operate like sleeker versions of the technology we are already accustomed to. Instead of completely reimagining what we do on a day-to-day basis, gapless sensing solutions are simply a modern adaptation that can meet our evolving needs in an ongoing pandemic. Better yet, they are already implemented in devices like cutting-edge phones and wearables, as well as in the consumer, automotive, industrial, and medical sectors. NextInput’s MEMS force sensors stand out as a mature technology with the company having shipped over thirty million units with zero field failures. Further, in striving to help solve the problems posed by this global health challenge and meet escalating demand, the company has greatly accelerated its production speed since the pandemic began, demonstrating its capacity to make people safer much faster than developers of ultrasonic gesture controls could.

Lastly, voice control technology at first glance appears to be a strong option for avoiding touching virus-coated surfaces altogether. However, it is significantly less suitable than NextInput’s sensors for use in public areas: Ambient noise in public areas would interfere if you were to attempt to operate a keypad solely using voice control, for example. In addition, when using an ATM or paying for products, customers would not want to announce their pin codes and private account information to everyone within earshot. Therefore, even if voice control can be useful when you are at home and your hands are full, it is unfitting for solving the sanitization problems posed by this pandemic and public surfaces.

In sum, it is fair to currently be wary of the many buttons, handles, and keypads you encounter in public, but it doesn’t have to remain this way. With leaders of MEMS-based gapless sensing solutions like NextInput inventing critical enabling technology for public devices to both curtail the transmission of COVID-19 and provide a superior user experience, we will all feel safer soon and be able to focus our energy on tasks other than avoiding COVID-19. Beyond that, we will be better equipped to fight the spread of future contagious diseases as well.