When we heard of the world’s first COVID-19 lockdown in Wuhan, China it was late January 2020. We were fed images of abandoned shopping centres and empty streets due to harsh restrictions.

We did not fathom that 18 months later Melbourne would be going through its fifth lockdown and active cases in the community would be the number we’d be keeping a close eye on every day.

The other number we were watching was retail spending. Falling with each lockdown, this would have a significant economic impact now and in months to come.

Retail is one of the biggest industries we look after both here and globally, alongside airports, hospitals, stadiums, and rail. Together with chief commercial officer, Tanya Michaelides, I oversee a team of builders, creators and spatial designers who specialise in immersive technology experiences for commercial spaces.

Understandably we were questioning how this pandemic would impact our business too. This became clear to us over the next four months. As with many trends, the pandemic greatly accelerated the shift to gesture-based technology for our clients. The experiences we build for our clients are both touch and gesture-controlled, but we needed to move away from the touch-based interactions and quickly.

Our clients wanted to know how they could encourage people to venture out of their homes as restrictions eased while also respecting their customers’ aversion to touching objects and the need to physically distance. They wanted to be ready for the next phase and the pressure intensified on us ten-fold to deliver solutions as fast as possible.

Thankfully, we already had the tools in place to achieve this with Intel’s RealSense computer vision technology.

Intel RealSense technology uses vision processing and depth sensing to allow devices, or systems, to perceive and understand the world around them. It allowed us to add touchless capabilities to a range of systems and connect to TKM9’s interactive content IM platform and controller engines. And it allowed us to adapt to this demand easily.

Melbourne Central is a case in point. One of the most popular shopping destinations in Australia, as well as a transport hub, it has over 300 stores and 56 million visitors each year. We had five activations in the centre. What we had to do was shift all these experiences to be touchless. And we managed to achieve this in just a couple of weeks.

If this had been 10 or 12 years ago, we wouldn’t have had the capability to achieve this as quickly as we did. Nor would we have been confident the tech could keep up with the complex task of gesture signalling. Having a small and powerful camera was critical.

Today, you’ll see a gesture-controlled menu in Melbourne Central’s food court, where users can scroll through the menu without touching anything. You’ll see users fly a plane by walking into a defined space to activate and control the aircraft using only their arms. And you’ll be able to control an artistic projection titled Tree of Seasons where users can make the trees sway and control the movement of the clouds and falling leaves.

Having technology that is accurate allowed us to deliver experiences that feel natural for the user.  

This pandemic has also meant our clients are asking us what else we can do for them – what’s next? So, we’re looking at other objects we touch on a daily basis that we hadn’t really been aware of before current times, that we can automate. Think of ATMs, lift buttons, or the button we press at the pedestrian crossing.  

Perhaps the other element to this is that users seem to be more open to new technology experiences than they did before. Granted, this is anecdotal feedback we’re receiving from our clients but it makes sense when you consider how contact tracing has forced us to be more comfortable with QR codes, for example.

If the conversations with our clients are anything to go by, we’ll see more gesture-based technology in retail. Technology has already played a critical role in allowing many of us to get on with life in these trying times and earn a living if we’re fortunate enough, it will undoubtedly continue to play a critical role in how we interact in the future.

Mark Hodgens is CEO of TKM9 Group.