During the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s not fun to be anywhere with strangers. But by far the worst situation is the elevator. You’re trapped in a small box, and you have to touch shared buttons to get to the right floor. You just want to get in, out, and wash your hands as fast as possible.
But the Singapore studio Stuck Labs has a better idea. They’ve devised a conceptual prototype called a Kinect Touchless elevator button. The idea is that when you walk up to the elevator button plate, you’ll see a series of big numbers. You hold your finger up to one, and it lights up to register your intent. Then, without actually touching the button, you mime pressing it.
And when you do? The button sinks right into the wall, as if responding to telekinesis. Pull your finger back, and the button sticks back out. The system is a mechanical wonder, capable of sensing your finger and responding with motors to its near-touch.
Granted, the Kinetic Touchless button is more the sort of design you’d see in a Hollywood sci-fi film than any corporate office building. That’s because design in movies tends to be performative, with no limits to the exciting, animated contraptions that will captivate an audience. Meanwhile, design in the real world tends to focus on simplicity and reliability. Why should an elevator button have a motion sensor and motor inside it—each of which can fail over time—when you could just press a button? Indeed, even if you want a touch-free elevator, many buildings already have that technology, allowing you to scan a badge to queue an elevator to automatically enter your floor for you.
Voice control could do this job. An elbow press onto a button could do this job. A self-sterilizing copper button can, in part, do this job. Why take such a grandiose approach?
COVID-19 has forced all of us to adjust to new norms. Most of these norms are at least a little painful, like wearing stuffy masks. What I like about the Kinetic Touchless elevator button is that, first and foremost, it’s familiar. The design builds upon a gesture we already know—pressing a button. UX designers sometimes refer to this approach generically as “meeting users where they are.” As with any new technology, like self-driving cars or virtual reality, a few familiar affordances bridge the gap to the strange and new. With so much strange during COVID-19, a gesture as recognizable as a button press is a welcome artifact of times before.
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It also brings to mind architect Bjarke Ingel’s theory of sustainable hedonism, which argues that being green can be experienced as a luxury rather than a sacrifice. In the case of the Kinetic Touchless elevator button, you might think of it more as pandemic hedonism, and that making safer, healthier choices can be an amusement rather than yet another burden.
We’ve reached out to Stuck Labs to ask if they have any interest in taking their elevator button design to market. But in the meantime, the studio has released all sorts of COVID-19-related designs, like a UV sterilizing box and a face shield free of charge for open license use. Granted, these projects aren’t quite as fun as the magical elevator buttons. But I’m taking the stairs until I get vaccinated, anyway.