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Once Considered Expensive And Unnecessary, Touchless Tech Tools Are Catching On

Just a few months ago, touchless tools like app-controlled or voice-controlled doors, elevators and lighting seemed too fanciful or expensive for all but the highest-tiered Class-A luxury buildings, but the coronavirus has turned the commercial real estate industry's view of these amenities on its head.

Once Considered Expensive And Unnecessary, Touchless Tech Tools Are Catching On
Architecture firm Gensler's rendering of a touchless bathroom design.

"I think it has changed or will change the perception of touchless, and it will be much more desired ... once that technology is more viable and in place," D2 Architecture associate principal Siobhan Farvardin Winfrey said.

Farvardin Winfrey, who works predominantly in the senior housing space, said the cost of tools like touchless building amenities generally declines with increased demand. The coronavirus could be just the accelerant the touchless tech space needs to see demand rise and prices drop. 

High cost is one of the greatest barriers for the Gesture Recognition and Touchless Sensing Market, according to a research report published by MarketsandMarkets. Even still, the report estimated the gesture recognition and touchless sensor sector is expected to grow dramatically from a market value of $16.6B in 2020 to $47.6B by 2025. That report was released April 2 and contains no mention of the coronavirus, which multiple experts told Bisnow would accelerate the industry's expected growth.

Even before the pandemic, D2 Architecture was looking into the possibility of installing touchless building amenities in senior housing that could respond to the presence of a human rather than a person's direct touch.

"There may be ways to operate [doors] that will be biometric [or touchless] later on in the future, which would be great," Farvardin Winfrey said. "That was something of interest to our clients even before, and now it's probably going to be even more of interest moving ahead." 

The trend of using personal devices to access buildings is definitely picking up in the wake of the pandemic, Gensler Strategy Director Kelly Moore told Bisnow. 

"We are seeing a shift from shared digital devices to personal digital devices," Moore said.

One such example is the ability to set up office or lobby sign-in areas in a way where guests are not required to sign in manually using a pen or a building-operated digital device.

"If you are in a main building lobby, and 200 people pace through the same lobby in the same day, instead of touching the same device, you are now using your personal device to check in," Moore said.

Once Considered Expensive And Unnecessary, Touchless Tech Tools Are Catching On
Gensler's rendering of a touchless lobby.

Building operators who require tenants to use electronic badges to access their offices are also evaluating the possibility of allowing tenants to activate office doors via cellphone rather than an electronic badge, Moore added. 

Large corporate campuses are brainstorming ways to remove cash payment or point-of-service payment systems from food and beverage areas, replacing them with systems that process payments via personal mobile devices. 

Voice activation technologies and facial recognition systems also have gained traction post-coronavirus, according to Moore. Some of the examples of brainstorming in this area include the possibility of turning computers, room lights and conference room equipment on through voice activation or visual recognition of a tenant's face.

While none of these concepts are new, Moore said the pandemic pushed them into the forefront. 

"There was the idea of the smart building before COVID, but I think we will start to see the shift post-COVID [toward] having more smart buildings," she said. 

WhiteBox Real Estate President Grant Pruitt noticed even before the coronavirus outbreak that Class-A buildings were pushing the limits on how much automation they could deploy.

"There is a building that I saw that they are building ... where they are putting foot pedals [inside] the elevators," Pruitt said. "A lot of the buildings have Smart Elevator systems that can go off your phone or an app off of your phone, and much of that has been incorporated in your Class-A, Class-AA buildings. Class B's not as much." 

But architects and tech innovators are wondering if Class-A's nearly exclusive hold on touchless tech will change and whether these tools will become en vogue in spaces where architects, building managers and developers never saw an overwhelming need for them before.

Once Considered Expensive And Unnecessary, Touchless Tech Tools Are Catching On
Technology from Spaces USA allows drivers to enter parking garages without having to touch anything outside their vehicles.

"We designed our company around public parking facilities and commercial projects in Downtown areas, so what surprised us is that after shelter-in-place [orders were] put into effect, our operating partners were calling us and saying, 'We need this [touchless] parking in all of our parking facilities,' which includes hospitals and airports ... places we never really thought about," Spaces USA Executive Chairman Jerry Skillett said.

Spaces USA owns a proprietary technology that allows drivers entering public parking garages to dial a phone number at the gate to access the facility. 

Once the driver enters the garage, Spaces USA sends payment information to the driver's personal mobile device. Using this technology, drivers can park, pay and exit highly trafficked garages without having to touch anything outside their vehicles. 

Even before the coronavirus pandemic broke out in March, Skillett said Spaces USA was pursuing its established goal of expanding from 12 U.S. cities to 40 of the most dense urban markets across the country. It has identified 10,000 parking facilities across the U.S. that could benefit from the system and has plans to install the system in 50 Dallas locations. 

The coronavirus escalated demand from parking operators nationwide and made Spaces USA's timing better than it could've foreseen. 

"Something that we did not expect is the fact that the public's consciousness over touching things would be heightened so much that the advancement of our technology would be accelerated by the fact that people found it no longer acceptable to have to push a button, touch a screen ... or do all of the things in parking that's necessary for [a driver] to complete a transaction," Skillet said. 

Contact Kerri Panchuk at kerri.panchuk@bisnow.com.

CORRECTION: JULY 30, 9:43 A.M. CT: This story has been updated to include Siobhan Farvardin Winfrey's full name.