In the Coronavirus Era, Israeli Designers Aim for No Contact

Designers come up with solutions that eliminate the need to touch objects and let people better manage with social distancing

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Card holder designed by Harel Gal and Dor Yehezkel
Card holder designed by Harel Gal and Dor Yehezkel
Corin Degani
Corin Degani

The coronavirus crisis has caused a storm in the world of design. Designers have been trying to digest the dramatic changes the virus has caused and translate them into solutions that will become part of our daily lives sooner or later.

Since the beginning of the millennium, and even more so in recent years, design and technology have gone hand in hand, with design both generating innovative technologies and mediating them for the general public. At the heart of this trend is the shift from the physical to the digital world in commerce, services and personal relations, which nowadays is getting a huge and unexpected boost.

“The first innovation wave after the coronavirus will be the effort to avoid touching things, like the buttons in an elevator, door handles and other surfaces in public places out of fear of infection,” says Dr. Oren Zuckerman, who heads the master’s program in human-computer interaction at the school of communications at the Herzilya International Disciplinary Center.

“Why should I have to press buttons? That’s proper design if you want to encourage contact, but mistaken if you want to preserve public health,” he says. “In the era after the coronavirus pandemic, what is required is design that prevents contact in public spaces. For example, a button that has a light censor so you can operate it by a body gesture or perhaps by voice or an automated mechanism.”

If you examine the trends that fashioned our interaction with technology, we began with a keyboard, moved to a mouse and keyboard, and then to touch screens. Now, argues Zuckerman, we are on the brink of new developments in voice interaction, like Alexa, Google Home and more. We must now examine what the dominant interaction will be.

A protective elbow stocking designed to minimize contact during the coronavirus era designed by Anne Schmidt. Credit: Anne Schmidt

Basic instinct

Bringing people and technology closer is not new, and it includes the effort to create intimacy and contact, Zuckerman says.

“The whole topic of contact with telephones, for example, is something basic – fingers on the screen in two dimensions – but human contact is something very deep and broad. For years, research has sought to deepen contact with technology: dealing with fabrics, soft materials, to consider all the significance of the contact between human and device, human and robot. There are lots of studies in this field. From this perspective we can expect something interesting and unknown because of social distancing,” Zuckerman says.

Many experts believe the next wave of innovation will focus on social distancing. If new norms are created, we won’t be able to sit in crowded cafes and seats in theaters will have to be spaced farther apart, a change that will greatly influence technologies and interaction. “There are lots of technologies that could be invented, for example, shaking hands using the mobile phone,” says Zuckerman. “The Bluetooth identifies that I’m coming toward you and we can have a cute animation, as if we were shaking hands. People won’t lose the desire for social interaction. We will see a lot more computer-facilitated technology for face-to-face communication.

“WhatsApp, for example, is computer-mediated communication. A platform designer must be concerned about things that enable a human connection. That’s why there are emojis. They came to fill a need – nonverbal communication that we are used to in face-to-face interaction. So what can replace, for example, the embrace we’re used to when we meet someone? Technologies will be created for this.”

Zuckerman says that there have been years of work invested in personal robots. “There are studies on robots that sit among people and they’ve proven that when a small robot sits between people, it improves the communication between them. Since human beings are sensitive to nonverbal communication, if, for example, the two of us are sitting together and I’m speaking to you, and at the same time the robot leans in your direction, research shows that you will feel more like a subject of interest.”

How is that connected to the era of social distancing?

“We’re used to physical contact and if there is no physical closeness, technology can fill in what’s missing and create a feeling of intimacy."

“The third wave of innovation will include broader technologies on an urban level. For example, the use of data, as we are seeing nowadays, in the hope that it can be done without monitoring or undermining privacy, but with the cooperation of the users. The idea of collecting data and helping people conduct beneficial interactions thanks to this data will be strong. For example, which route should I take when jogging or which route the city’s garbage truck should take, to which park I should take the dog out and on what bench it’s worth it for me to sit. These statistics could also tell the user where it’s crowded, where there’s pollution and more.”

Design schools in Israel have been responding to the unconventional situation imposed by the crisis, and some have changed their curricula accordingly.

An emissary tip rack designed by Anne SchmidtCredit: Anne Schmidt

“At the start of the semester we began a Fixpert course [part of an international project in which students are enlisted to find solutions for people with disabilities or other problems], but when the coronavirus came everyone had to stay home and we were forced to stop the project,” explains Prof. Gad Charny of the Holon Institute of Technology. “So we launched a Fixpert for the coronavirus: Students were asked to look around and find solutions for their relatives that they could invent at home. Not for mass production, but solutions for right now. We’re talking about a unique experience in design studies.”

The students came up with lots of interesting ideas that are now in the planning stages. “For example, how to conduct a video call on your phone while showing the other party something that you’re working on,” says Charny. “You need the telephone held at a certain angle, so you and what you are doing can be seen. So you need a special stand for the telephone. Or how can you create partitions these days in small homes, even if just visually, so that people who are working at home can concentrate or work with a feeling of privacy.

“Other problems the students raised and are searching for solutions for are how to give cash to a delivery person and how to deal with glasses clouding up when you wear a mask. Another problem is roommates – not couples who are intimate – who have to use the same bathroom faucet and kitchen utensils. What do you do about that? You can design an extension for a handle, or like in hospitals, where there are faucets that you turn on with your elbow. There are all kinds of solutions.”

Another issue students are working on is safety. With children spending more time at home, how can we make it safer regarding electricity, for example, to keep dangerous things away from them? On the other hand, what about older kids who are in the kitchen a lot – what is accessible to them, where can they stand if they want to help with the cooking, or how can a safe work space in the kitchen be marked off for them?

Washing hands

“There’s another challenge that every parent of small children knows about these days: How do we encourage our children to wash their hands for 30 seconds, and what design solution will make them do this the way they should?” Charny says.

He describes another project that began before the coronavirus crisis, but has become more significant now: Students Dor Yehezkel and Harel Gal designed a card holder for a girl with cerebral palsy who has a hard time holding cards herself. The model can be made at home with cardboard and a home printer.

Zachi Diner, head of the visual communication department at the Holon Institute of Technology, expects far-reaching changes in people’s relationship with the digital world in the wake of the pandemic. “There will be attempts to move physical reality to digital, and at the same time an effort to bring something more authentic to the digital world,” he says.

“This period has been a shortcut to the future,” he adds, referring to the widespread use of technology during the pandemic and the progress made in switching over to digital in many fields. “Until now the realm of virtual reality was linked primarily to games and small children. But the virtual world and the entities we will create in it for ourselves – which goes far beyond our Facebook profiles – will be the major change in the future: our ability to create an identity that we’ll be able to replicate and through which we can be in several places at once. What is missing today in digital is the physicality.

“They say that young people use only chat and texts, but now we are seeing an effort to go back to some kind of authenticity,” he says. “Even apps like Zoom are more real. Some of the research directions being pursued now deal with the question of how to create environments that will resemble reality as much as possible, instead of distancing from reality, like in fantasy games that take you out of your environment. The next move will be the creation of more realistic environments, ones that we can imagine and within which you can replicate yourself. I also think that the isolation led us to understand that the virtual world has something that releases us, in the good sense of the word. I would be happy today to be in my office with another four people around the table, each with his own avatar.”

The tools to make a coin holder for limited contact during the coronavirus crisisCredit: Anne Schmidt

Someone else benefiting from the accelerated growth of digital interactions during the coronavirus pandemic is Inbar Carmel, a founding partner in Infime. In 2014 Carmel established a label of underwear sold only over the internet, and after understanding the many obstacles to selling panties online, she gave up the virtual store and focused on developing technology that would help overcome these problems.

The technology allows fashion website customers to try on bathing suits and underwear virtually. Since this is done via an avatar, without the customer needing to upload photos or personal details, there is no risk to privacy.

Carmel also gives a course in entrepreneurship at IDC, in which she surveyed the newest trends expected in the field.

“Masks are the right accessories for now,” Carmel says, noting that some of the largest fashion houses are going into that field. “Just as I can choose a great pair of shoes, I can now choose a great mask.”

Another trend that will pick up is the purchase of ecological clothing and products made by companies that promote sustainability to one degree or another, as part of the pursuit of the simpler life. For the same reason she believes there will be an increase in the purchase of casual clothes.

Another trend – which has gotten a big push lately – is online commerce. “We thought that this is how it would look in the future; we didn’t know that the change would come because of such an extreme situation,” Carmel says. “In the past I had to persuade my clients of the importance of the virtual dressing room; now they understand that on their own.”

Creativity in a crisis

Even those who aren’t focused on technology understand the changes it has brought to the field of design. “From an academic perspective, no one thought you could study design from a distance,” says Prof. Tamir Shefer of the Holon Institute’s design faculty. “This has shaken up the whole system. The concept of hands-on has been overturned, and a new concept of communication has been created. I don’t think it will replace the studio, but it will add another stratum of courses that might be solely online.

“In academia, for example, a lecturer who transitions to teaching online needs a tighter curriculum than when he taught in a classroom. This exactness will influence the future as well,” says Shefer. “It’s the same with the students; they are more attentive. And there is more creativity at such times.”

Shefer himself has produced a series of illustrations he has dubbed the coronavirus diary. “For designers who are usually constantly busy working with clients, there was suddenly some time to create things that weren’t to order and for some rethinking as professionals,” he says.

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