Understanding Touchscreen Technology

Keypads are yesterday’s technology. Today, touchscreens rule the market. Devices with screens that respond to the user’s touch are now our go-to gadgets for communication, information, and entertainment. While buttons, keys, and trackballs remain useful, the keypad as we know it looks headed for the nonessential list.

Touchscreen technology looks awfully complicated, but a glimpse underneath your device’s responsive screen reveals nothing but simplicity, beauty, and dashes of technical smarts. Touchscreen technology comes in many varieties, but two functional types stand out. Your phone probably owns a capacitive touchscreen, while your car’s GPS device possibly features resistive technology.


Capacitive Touchscreens


Capacitive touchscreens make use of the user’s own electrical charge to detect touch points. An insulating surface covers layers of conductive metal arranged in rows. These electrically active rows react with your finger’s natural charge, which in turn allows the device to sense your touch.

Because they rely on your body’s electrical charge, capacitive touchscreens won’t work without skin contact (or a special conductive stylus). Capacitive touchscreens are also fragile. They are highly susceptible to the effects of dust and moisture.

Capacitive touchscreens are really delicate, but they are also very responsive. They are more sensitive than resistive touchscreens, actually. They can even detect the approach of a finger (making predictive input and the front-loading of processes possible). Capacitive touchscreens can also handle multitouch functions.

Cost, however, prevents capacitive touchscreens from appearing in many gadgets. Capacitive technology is really expensive. Many companies opt for resistive touchscreens to drive down manufacturing and retail costs.

Capacitive touchscreens are mostly found in smartphones, tablets, and laptops.


Resistive Touchscreens


Resistive touchscreens rely on pressure to pinpoint your finger’s location. Air separates a flexible conductive layer from a rigid resistive layer. These layers touch when you press on the screen, thereby completing a current.

Because they rely solely on pressure, resistive touchscreens will work even without direct skin contact. Resistive technology is also highly resistant to the effects of dust and moisture.

Resistive touchscreens are relatively durable, but they are less sensitive than capacitive touchscreens. They can only handle one touch point at a time. The layers that make up this technology also block a lot of light, leading to relatively dimmer displays.

Cost makes up for most of these drawbacks, however. Resistive technology is relatively inexpensive. Many manufacturers go for resistive touchscreens where multitouch functionalities aren’t needed.


Resistive touchscreens are mostly found in ATMs, GPS gadgets, gaming devices, and electronic readers.


Other Touch Displays


Various technologies that turn displays into input tools have been implemented and marketed with mixed results. The 1971 Plato IV terminal used an infrared matrix, for example. Other systems employed cameras, projectors, mirrors, and other optical instruments to capture the user’s gestures.

Modern touch displays often combine different techniques to come up with technologically unique products. For instance, Microsoft’s patented PixelSense technology exploits image processing methods in conjunction with infrared backlighting to sense and subsequently interpret onscreen commands.


A Few Notes on the History of Touchscreens


In 1965, E.A. Johnson demonstrated at the Royal Radar Establishment in Malvern, United Kingdom a unique input display system that used the user as a conductive element. Like modern capacitive touchscreens, Johnson’s prototype featured a glass insulator and a transparent coating that served as a conductor.

Johnson’s demonstration impressed the British aviation industry. Trade regulators took in the new invention and adopted touch displays across the board. Air traffic controllers throughout the UK used Johnson’s capacitive touchscreens well into the ’90s.

Resistive technology came later. Pressed for a better way to analyze results from his atomic experiments, Dr. G. Samuel Hurst and his research team created a rudimentary input system. They used an electrically conductive sheet to read coordinates and facilitate mathematical computations.

In 1970, Hurst and various colleagues improved on the concept. They adopted Hurst’s original idea on computers. A similar conductive sheet was applied on the screen on top of another surface divided equally into coordinates. Like modern resistive technology, Hurst’s system relied on pressure and a conductive grid that scanned the flow of electricity.


A Few Notes on the Future of Touchscreens


Market movements and technological developments are already geared toward larger, cheaper, and more responsive touch displays. Touchscreens are showing up on other consumer products that demand size, flexibility, and affordability. As a result, touch displays are becoming more impressive (and even more ubiquitous).

Today, touchscreens that can be folded or rolled like paper are technological realities. Touch displays that can process vibrations and pick up a wealth of gestures are also here. Presently, multitouch as we know it is old news. As it is, manufacturers are preparing to take the “touch” out of touchscreens via finger-free devices.

The electronics industry is also looking at replacing indium tin oxide (or ITO) sensors with silver nanowires and plastic sheets. ITO made the touchscreen revolution possible, but manufacturing costs and the general frailty of this transparent, conductive compound are forcing companies to look for alternatives. Indium is also rare and is mined mostly in China (in operations that pay little attention to the environment), so finding a good substitute for ITO is really important.


The future looks big, bright, and bendy as far as touch displays are concerned. Touchscreens will be around for a long time, but in a few years we may be looking at responsive screens that bear no resemblance to touch displays as we know them now.