National Insights

Of wine windows and voice activation

Analog and digital technologies to reduce risk during the pandemic
By Constantine Valhouli  |  August 19, 2020 6:48 PM

Image via Pxfuel

We've been thinking about those delightful medieval wine windows from Italy that have been getting attention for the first time in, like, six hundred years. No, really - it has been about six centuries since they were last broadly installed and used, during the last major outbreak of the bubonic plague.

In addition to looking whimsical and delightful, they were a low-tech and inexpensive solution to a problem that we did not expect to face during our lifetimes.

Our concern is that in the rush to "return to normal" that we will pass over the opportunity to learn from the pandemic. It has exposed weaknesses and fractures in our society, and especially the design of everyday objects. Those windows, six hundred years later, and a vivid reminder that humanity has faced these challenges before and has adapted to them. What lessons will we learn from the present pandemic - and more importantly, will we acknowledge that this could likely be the first of many pandemics that we face during our lives?

Six months into the coronavirus, we're just beginning to see how certain everyday objects and devices could be designed more thoughtfully to reduce the risk of viral transmission.

Elevator buttons are veritable petri dishes. It would be so simple to use voice activation in elevators rather than requiring people to touch buttons. Or gloves may make a comeback in public life. Or perhaps these touchless key holders become more widely adopted.

Gas stations and parking meters. For those of us in cars, one cannot help but be aware of the risks of handling gas station pump handles and the keypads. The credit card slots here and at parking meters are designed pre-coronavirus – there is no way to delicately slide one's card into the slot without accidentally touching the edges of the device (and immediately screaming inside and running for the hand sanitizer). It would be wonderful to see the next generation of pumps and meters take viral risks into account, in their design.

Workflow thinking, for sanitizing. Why are there not small dispensers of hand sanitizer at each gas station pump, or credit card keypad in stores? Same for coffee shops, where one is often required to sign an electronic tablet with a finger – which immediately becomes a possible vector of transmission, just before one is about to eat food or hold a beverage.

In the United States, we're not used to considering the communal consequences of our actions. And yet, small steps like these can slow the spread of the virus throughout our neighborhoods and communities – an acknowledgement that my actions may affect others, but they also acknowledge that their actions may affect me. The real pandemic here may not be the virus, but the outbreak of what could be rightly called toxic individuality.

At the same time,