The human touch

by Helena Morgan
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FM takes a look at facial recognition, touch and voice technologies, and how they’re making our interactions with our environments more seamless.

Technology has shaped the way we interact with the built environment for, well, as long as we’ve been building environments. The advance of digital connectivity in the past few decades has seen us connect with our spaces in new ways. For facility managers and occupants, this usually means via computerised and connected interfaces as we type, log in, clock on and share data. A new movement is underway, though, which lets people connect with tech, and therefore built environments, in more natural, seamless and intuitive ways. Facial recognition, fingerprint scanning and voice technology are presenting new, unique solutions for building managers and the occupants and guests who frequent their spaces.

Facial recognition is unlocking ways to identify people and has vast utility in security, access control and employee time tracking. It’s slowly doing away with locks and keys, manual check-in and the humble ID badge. One US airline has also proved it’s a way to delight customers by streamlining the tedium of modern air travel. Similarly, touch tech and fingerprinting are making smart identification a reality in a number of industries and applications. Voice technology too, which has long been making its way into our phones and households for shopping and searching, is helping us control the world around us.

In this feature, FM takes a look at some applications of these technologies and how they make interactions with our environments just a little more human.

Facial recognition

This is a system that uses biometrics to map facial features from a photograph or video then compares the information with a database of known faces to find a match. Many of us already use it to unlock our phones, and businesses and government institutions aren’t waiting around to apply the tech. At select airports around the US, Delta Airlines introduced ‘kerb to gate’ facial recognition (pictured above), meaning jetsetters can use their face ID to check in, clear customs and board without the hassle of presenting print documents or filling in touch screens. The technology was first rolled out at Atlanta Airport and, as of December 2019, now appears in three airports nationwide and is the favoured method of boarding for 72 percent of ticket holders.

Plenty of other applications are making their way into mainstream use, such as banks using facial recognition for customer authentication and thermal camera technology introduced to four Sydney hospitals, which combines facial recognition and temperature monitoring to detect people’s forehead temperatures. A weapon implemented in the fight to stop the spread of COVID-19, the latter can detect and read temperatures on 30 foreheads at once and it’s even smart enough to avoid false readings, such as a person carrying a hot drink. While the technology cannot diagnose people with COVID-19, the cameras provide valuable early warning detection assistance. Unlike hand-held devices that require closer proximity between patients and nursing staff, the Johnson Controls Body Temperature Detection System allows hospital staff to stand back and monitor people from a distance as they walk in front of the camera. The seamless screening process has proven to be particularly reassuring for hospital staff who are dealing with large numbers of the general public coming in for COVID-19 testing.


With a similar concept to facial recognition – taking a fingerprint ID and finding a match in a database – touch scanning is an attractive solution for FMs looking to inject smart tech into their security and access control. With a more faithful confirmation of ‘true identity’, wherein there’s no risk of fraud through obtaining someone else’s keys or keycard, for example, it’s perfect for high-risk and sensitive applications. As the technology advances, pain points are being removed and smoothed out all the time, but it’s worth knowing the obstacles that are impeding broader enterprise adoption. There is, of course, always the cost and complexity.

Few of us are in the position to purchase these state-of-the-art solutions and overhaul our security overnight. Other roadblocks include fraud from fake fingerprints – one of the issues that is fading away as the tech gets smarter – as well as slow old systems that don’t get users through the door as quickly as simple ID cards and readers can. In a column for Facility Executive, Wayne Pak of HID Global outlines the three steps being taken to overcome these hurdles:

  1. Optimising capture: the quality of the captured image is critical. Sensors that use multispectral imaging illuminate the skin at different depths to collect information from inside the finger, augmenting available surface fingerprint data. This helps the sensor collect data even if the skin has poor contact with the sensor due to wet, dry or damaged fingers. They also resist damage from cleaning products and contamination from dirt and sunlight.
  2. Liveness detection: the ability to determine that the biometric data captured by the reader is from a living person and not a plastic fake or artificial copy.
  3. Physical access control integration: incorporating biometrics into access control systems requires a secure trust platform designed to meet the concerns of accessibility and data protection in a connected environment. The platform should leverage credential technology that employs encryption and a software-based infrastructure to secure identities on any form factor for access to doors, IT networks, and beyond.

As our ability to capture and log data improves, privacy is always a primary concern. “Biometrics data must be handled like all sensitive information,” writes Pak, “and properly architected systems will always consider and protect against both internal and external threats.

“Beyond the encryption of the data itself, there are now many good alternatives available for building highly secure and well protected systems, including the use of multi-factor and even multi-modal authentication to maintain security even if some identifying data is compromised.”


Voice tech is another piece of kit making its way into our home lives; it lets us have simple conversations with computers, controlling web searches, shopping and lighting, cooling, heating and other systems. The smart tech has made rapid advancements in the last few years, inching nearer and nearer to being able to understand all of our languages and their unique characteristics – and it’s not stopping at our phones and our households.

Talk 5 is an Australian app that launched in the height of COVID-19 lockdown. It’s an innovative application of voice tech that streamlines the safety audit procedure on construction sites. Interestingly, by injecting the element of voice interaction, it is helping to break down language and literacy barriers – areas that once made it difficult, and therefore potentially dangerous, for workers to complete audits and get on with the job. The app’s founder, George Bancs, identified a rather alarming problem: his workers on-site, who spoke a range of languages and had varying literacy levels, were not always completing Take 5 safety audit questionnaires with complete accuracy. Some rushed through it, some didn’t understand it and some simply copied the same answers they’d done yesterday. This habit, which risks affecting the entire construction industry, saw many treating the forms as simply a “box-ticking exercise”, not giving them the time they deserved.

“My view is that a lot of workplaces are only doing [Take 5 safety audits] because they have to, not because they need to really make sure that everybody’s safe or that everybody understands,” says Bancs. He tried reading out the audits and, able to gauge the reactions and affirm his workers understood the questions, experienced better results but did not have time to perform this task on-site every day. “I thought to myself, ‘I have a serious problem here, how do I fix this?’” recalls Bancs. “I thought, ‘what worked last night was me talking to them – I had buy-in. OK, how do I communicate to staff without having to be there?’” With the ability to customise questionnaires to any job site, the platform also includes federal and state government workplace guidelines and features automated language translation, a natural language user interface that comprehends slang and industry jargon, a checklist template library, the ability to attach photos to flag hazards and capture audit, checklist, survey and inspection information via audio in 50 languages. Beyond construction, the app has obvious value in a number of industries for COVID-19 health tracking for symptoms and exposure, and Bancs is also exploring applications in mental health, transport and retail.

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