At the core of invention is the desire to solve a problem. This is where the story of the “Switch Point” touchless button begins. Before we dive into the story, I should provide a bit of context. I work for the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. Part of our educational outreach is Spark!Lab, a hands-on invention studio consisting of multiple Spark!Lab Network sites. These sites provide opportunities for visitors to practice their inventive creativity as they work through curated invention challenges. Along with our belief that “everyone is inventive,” we also see invention as a process with multiple steps. The steps as we explain them are: Think It, Explore It, Sketch It, Create It, Try It, Tweak It, and Share It. These steps do not have to go in order but are all part of inventing. In this telling of the invention of the touchless button, you will see these steps referenced throughout my story.
It was early in the summer of 2020 and the world had shut down. With thoughts of an eventual reopening, groups throughout the museum mobilized to talk about how to provide a safe experience for visitors. The museum technology group was taking a concerted look at how to make the museum a touchless environment, including interactives. I was participating in these meetings when the discussion began around which interactives could be made touchless and which would need to be temporarily shut down. As part of our discussions on interactives, we saw an opportunity to also improve accessibility. These meetings and discussions sent my mind into the “Think It” step of the invention process. There was a problem with high-touch interactives. How could it be solved?
A few months prior to our first meeting, I had been engaging in some basic research—one part of the “Explore It” step of the process. I was simply exploring interesting sensors and I found one with a narrow field of view and the ability to sense even inanimate objects. The memory of that sensor had stuck in my head and fired off an idea for solving a portion of the interactive touch problem. I realized that I may not be able to find a solution to all of the touch interactives, but I felt like, with some collaboration, it should be possible to solve the touch problem in relationship to the push button interactives. Most of the push buttons in the museum are some form of “arcade” button with a simple switch that makes something happen when activated. The idea was left to simmer until our next meeting.
While the idea was stirring, I dove deeper into the “Explore It” step of the invention process. I began researching what was already on the market that could act as a “touchless button.” I also sent emails to the exhibits technology team to pick their brains about what touchless button options they might know about. In June 2020, I proposed the core of a solution to the exhibits technology team. They were receptive. Work began on a touchless button that we would develop and prototype in-house.
In less than a week, I took to the “Sketch It” step of the invention process. I was working on a circuit layout and physical design for a touchless button housing. Knowing my limitations when it comes to writing code, I reached out to Geoff on the exhibits technology team. He agreed to collaborate on the invention by working out the code behind the input, output, and logic that would make the button work.
In addition to coordinating with Geoff on the coding, I placed orders for prototyping supplies. With the newly purchased supplies, circuit sketch, and the work tools I brought home at the beginning of the pandemic, we worked our way into the “Create It” phase of invention. The first proof of concept circuit for the button was completed and its operation was filmed by early July 2020. When any solid object came close to the sensor in the circuit, the button would trigger a relay that could be used to control any switch-activated electronic device.
While working on the circuit side of the button, I was also in the process of designing the physical form of the invention. The key considerations for the touchless button design and function were:
- It would have accessibility built in, making it usable by as many museum visitors as possible.
- The form of the button could fit into holes of multiple sizes that were currently occupied by existing arcade-type push buttons.
- All of the electronics and logic needed to make the button function would reside in or on the button housing. At the time, there were very few touchless options on the market and most, if not all of those, needed to be connected to a network or larger system of some sort in order to function. Our design was a standalone unit.
- The button would be easy to install.
- The button would have a form and function that would make it intuitive for users to understand.
With these design considerations in mind, all of which and more are part of our patent application claims, we worked out the way the circuit, button form, and code would come together. Using 3D printed forms of our design, we began creating working prototypes. The prototypes allowed us to work through the “Try It” and “Tweak It” steps of the invention process. With each try came more ideas for improvement and more tweaks. At this time, we also revisited the “Explore It” step. We kept looking for better ways to make the touchless button do what we wanted it to do and to search the market for products or patents that may have come about since the genesis of our idea.
We made countless protypes of the button form. Each new design either solved a problem in the previous design or refined the look and function of the invention. Through feedback and video demo calls, Geoff was making improvements/tweaks to the code that made the button operate. Before long we began to engage in the “Share It” step of the invention process. Per the advice of our patent attorney, in the early stages of the invention, we only shared the idea with other Smithsonian colleagues. In the meantime, we had been put in touch with the Smithsonian’s legal department and Smithsonian’s commercial department. Relationships forged with these two departments provided Geoff and me the opportunity, with the Lemelson Center’s support, to file for a patent on our invention. With the patent filing underway, we were now free to develop a “sell sheet” and video to share the idea with a broader audience.
At this point in my story, I want to pause to acknowledge that this is a very pared down version of all that happened as we took on this touchless button invention. There were many more people, conversations, and occurrences involved. Without all of the collaborators and meetings, the touchless button would have never seen life beyond the workbench.
Since creating our working prototype and making many collaborative connections, here is a brief list of what has happened with the touchless button.
- A provisional patent was filed with the US Patent and Trademark Office.
- A utility patent was filed and, as of this writing, is making its way through the patent system.
- We have spoken to multiple companies regarding the button as we seek to license the idea to someone who can make it and put it on the market.
- I have built the touchless button into vertical wind tunnel interactives that are currently at two Spark!Lab Network sites, with one more to come in Singapore early in 2023.
- In Draper Spark!Lab at the National Museum of American History, we have created a display case featuring the button to showcase the “Share It” part of the invention process.
- Thanks to a collaboration with Cortina, a company that designs and produces multimedia experiences for museums, our button was displayed at the 2022 American Alliance of Museum conference.
- As of September 2022, we continue to seek licensing partners.
Although we spend most of our time in Spark!Lab working through the invention process, this touchless button project has been unique. The scope is much larger and the possible uses for its implementation are almost limitless. It has been an honor to be part of making our “Switch Point” touchless button a reality. I am truly excited by the potential it has to transform how people think about and use buttons in any area of their lives. My hope is to someday see this touchless button in multiple public spaces and know that I was able to take part in putting it there. May your inventive ideas, big or small, also inspire similar hope, aspirations, and opportunities.