A feel for bathroom design

25th July 2016
Nat Bowers

The bathroom is not a place we tend to associate with technology but the advent of gesture-based interfaces can change all that. One of the big problems with bathroom controls is that we have to touch them - often with hands covered with soap. Being able to make a gesture to alter the flow of water or change its temperature can make a big difference to usability.

By Bastien Beauvois, Product Marketing Engineer, Ultrahaptics.

Sensors based on proximity infrared sensors are already used in public bathrooms to minimise the possibility of surfaces being contaminated by users. But they are relatively unsophisticated controls - just turning a faucet on or off with no control over temperature or flow. And the styling is only suitable for the functional environment needed for public utilities. More sophisticated forms of sensor and interface will allow touch-free control to extend into the home.

For example, image-based sensors can detect movements that let someone with soap-covered hands not only adjust the water flow but the temperature without physically touching the faucet. The problem with just using the image sensor is that the only feedback the user gets is when they put their hands under the water - which may be too hot for comfort. For touch-free interfaces to work, we need to sense how comfortable the water is first.

Touch-free haptic feedback provides the answer: the user will feel the changes on their hands before putting them into the water. Haptic feedback without touch sounds like an oxymoron but the technology exists to achieve it.

The Ultrahaptics technology uses ultrasound generated by transducers mounted under the fascia of a product to provide the sense of touch up to a metre away from the surface. The key to the technology’s ability to create haptic feedback lies in the interaction between focused ultrasound and the skin.

When the ultrasound is focused onto the surface of the skin, a shear wave is created in the skin tissue that neuroreceptors pick up and channel to the brain - creating the sense of that part of the hand having touched an object. The focused ultrasound is entirely safe as the energy is reflected off the skin’s surface.

The transducers can modulate the intensity of the energy rapidly to create different types of sensation. The combination of these two approaches lets software generate a wide range of touch-based sensations. Users can, for example, feel the difference between changing water flow and temperature as they turn the virtual controls in mid air.

Allowing more functionality, without requiring touch, opens new opportunities for bringing technology into the bathroom. From music players, to televisions, and even light controls that can be dimmed for a relaxing bath, or brightened for shaving, with the wave of a hand. The safety concerns of electronics in a wet environment are significantly lessened when devices can be controlled precisely without having to physically touch the interface.

The ability to turn a control in mid air and get feedback will make it easier to use bathroom facilities such as lavatories and bidets that are, increasingly, incorporating more sophisticated functions. As the user is often facing away from the unit, the ability to control them and get instant feedback on which setting they are altering is vital - and hard to achieve with conventional control panels and displays.

For the bathroom and suite designers, the move into free-space controls provides many more degrees of freedom. By avoiding the need to cater for touch panels, which need to be flat or only slightly curved, the Ultrahaptics technology can support much more organic and fluid physical designs. The separation of control and surface also makes it easier for designers to react to changes in design preferences among consumers – so the introduction of technology can do much more than simply replace conventional mechanical faucets with their electronic counterparts.

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