Touchscreens: Past, Present, and Future

Posted on 09, January, 2018

Last Modified on 19, January, 2018

In our modern world, touchscreens are a common sight. According to a Pew Research survey conducted in November 2016, 77% of Americans own a smartphone and 51% own a tablet computer. While the touchscreen has been around for decades, it's never seen popularity like this. But where did they come from? How did they become so widespread? And how can we expect them to change?

When compared to other computer devices, touchscreens are unique because they handle both input and output — interpreting the user's actions while featuring a graphic display. They allow the user to interact directly with what's on the screen, unlike a mouse that moves a cursor. Theoretically, this is a faster design because the pointer doesn't need to travel across the screen between different objects. Touchscreens can additionally come with a number of features that increase their functionality.

  • Multi-touch – the screen can detect the presence of more than one points of contact for input. A "10-point" touchscreen will distinguish all ten of a person's fingers separately.
  • Pressure sensitivity – the amount of pressure applied to the screen is also detected. This adds another layer of input and is used in the Apple Watch as Force Touch and 3D Touch in the iPhone 6S.
  • Gesture recognition – the touchscreen recognizes certain finger motions as separate commands, such as double-tapping to select text or pinching to zoom out.
  • Haptics – recreates the sense of touch with motion. In today's smartphones, it often refers to vibration generated when touching the screen.
  • Fingerprint resistance – since most users will be using their fingers, newer screens are have oleophobic coating (Greek for "fear of oil") that prevents oils from sticking to the surface.

Past

1960s to 70s: Invention

The first touchscreen was invented in 1965 by Eric A. Johnson who worked at the Royal Radar Establishment in Malvern, England. His first article, "Touch display—a novel input/output device for computers" describes his work and features a diagram of the design. The invention is known as a capacitive touchscreen, which uses an insulator, in this case glass, coated with a transparent conductor, like indium tin oxide. The user's finger also acts as a conductor and disrupts the capacitance of the conducting layer. In more simple terms, touching the screen causes a change in the electric charge that the computer detects. Johnson patented his design in 1966, improved it in 1968, and wrote another article in the same year. At some point, it was adopted by British air traffic controllers and was used into the 1990s.

Resistive touchscreen

Another design came in the 1970s, with the resistive touchscreen. American inventor, scientist, health physicist, and educator Dr. G. Samuel Hurst discovered this design while studying atomic physics with a Van de Graaff generator, a machine that accumulates and releases electric charge. He and two colleagues used electrically conductive paper to read the coordinates of their analysis, completing their experiments in a few hours when it could have taken days.

The University of Kentucky — that Hurst had been working at — tried to patent the idea on his behalf, but he had other ideas. When returned to work at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, he dedicated time after-hours to work on his almost accidental invention. Hurst and nine others worked to perfect the design, calling their group "Elographics" while applying it to controlling computers. This design uses a number of thin resistive layers with thin gaps between. When a finger presses down on the screen, they're pushed together, creating voltage that a computer can read as a location. Because it uses pressure, it can be pressed with either a finger or stylus. In addition, the design is cheaper than a capacitive screen.

1980s: First Consumer Models and New Technologies

Tech companies were starting to take notice of this new way to control computers. Hewlett-Packard was the first to release a product that put touchscreens in the hands of everyday users. HP made a name for itself in the 1960s and 70s for creating smaller and smaller computers to the point where it had made one of the first machines to be called a "personal computer", the 9100A.

In 1983, Hewlett-Packard released the HP-150, also known as the HP Touchscreen. The included device used a new system for touch input, featuring a grid of infrared emitters and detectors in the monitor's bezel. When the infrared beams were interrupted, the HP-150 could locate where the user was touching the screen. However, the system had its faults: dust would get into the infrared holes and require vacuuming. The design wasn't ergonomic either, users would complain of muscle fatigue, or "Gorilla Arm" from keeping their arm outstretched and unsupported for long periods of time. This first foray into a consumer touchscreen device wasn't incredibly popular. When the HP Touchscreen II released in 1984, the touch screen was optional, and rarely added.

Meanwhile, other touch technologies were being developed. Myron Krueger, an American computer artist developed the Video Place, a screen that could track a user's silhouette and movements. Multi-touch was also proven in 1982 at the University of Toronto by Nimish Mehta. This design also used a camera to identify where the user was touching the screen. The first multi-touch overlay was developed in 1984 by Bob Boie of Bell Labs, creating a true capacitive screen that could detect multiple points of contact.

IBM Simon

1990s: Popular Touchscreens

As computers continued to shrink, tech companies started seeing the possibilities of handheld devices. Apple released the MessagePad, also called the Newton, in 1993 as a revolutionary new tool: the PDA. These used a touchscreen that was made for a stylus, and boasted a much anticipated feature: handwriting recognition. However, the high price point and problems interpreting user writing kept it from being successful. At this time, IBM released the first cellphone with a touchscreen, the Simon Personal Communicator. Today, it's recognized as the first true smartphone with a calendar, address book, and notepad.

The most popular series of touchscreen devices was the Pilot by Palm Computing. Introduced in 1996, these PDAs were a staple in the business world, improving on many of the Apple Newton's features. In fact, the Palm Pilot's handwriting recognition was so successful that it was eventually used on later models of the Newton.

PalmPilot Professional

By the end of the 1990s, touchscreens became part of computer culture and interest increased. Wayne Westerman, a graduate student of the University of Delaware published a doctoral dissertation about capacitive touchscreens in 1999 that would lead to their popularity today. He also formed the company FingerWorks to create new devices based on his findings.

2000s: Pre-Smartphone Touchscreens in Daily Life

Touch screens really started to enter the public eye in this decade. FingerWorks used its research to develop the first multi-touch gesture-based products. Most of these were computer accessories like keyboards with "zero-force" keys, exploring new methods of input. Much like the Apple Newton, these products were innovative, but expensive. Products such as the TouchStream LP, MacNTouch, and the iGesture Pad were well received, but did not see much use outside of users with disabilities. In 2005, FingerWorks announced they were no longer in business, but continued to file and process patents into 2007. The company was bought by multinational corporation that would be known for causing the success of touchscreens to skyrocket.

Big tech companies continued to see how touchscreens could be used in new ways. Alias|Wavefront created the PortfolioWall, a gesture-based computer that made visual design a breeze. Nintendo released the first successful video game console with touch input in 2004, the DS. Microsoft began developing their own devices as well. The Microsoft Surface (not to be confused with today's line of tablets) was a computer the size table with a flat touchscreen display on top. Soon, ATMs, fitness machines, gas pumps, and checkout counters would feature this style of input as it grew in popularity.

Present

Apple Popularizes the Touchscreen in Consumer Electronics

In 2007, the original iPhone was released and revolutionized the phone industry, featuring a touchscreen instead of a physical dialing pad. Smartphones became the number one device in communications and with them, this new style of input. The iPhone's touchscreen can change between a dialing pad, a keyboard, a video, a game, or a myriad of other apps. This was leaps and bounds ahead of the previous leader in phone technology, the BlackBerry, which featured a full physical keyboard. Remember, it was so popular that it was called the "crackberry" — it doesn't even compare to the addictiveness of smartphones today!

The iPhone brought with it a capacitive touchscreen that included a brand-new feature for the consumer market: multi-touch. Apple claims it invented the technology, but in reality they purchased FingerWorks to assist in iPhone development and only popularized it. The multi-touch capabilities of the new smartphone added more functions than those found in single-touch devices. This is why Apple decided to use the more expensive capacitive screen. However, it relies on the electrical charge of human skin and cannot be used with a glove or a normal stylus.

Today: Touchscreen Explosion

The Apple iPad was released in 2010, creating another market for touchscreen devices. The first truly mainstream tablet was apparently worked on before iPhone, and its release touches on a speech made in 1983 by Steve Jobs: "What we want to do is we want to put an incredibly great computer in a book that you can carry around with you and learn how to use in 20 minutes ... and we really want to do it with a radio link in it so you don’t have to hook up to anything and you’re in communication with all of these larger databases and other computers." Just like the iPhone, the iPad created a wave of tablets from competitors. Not only are most of our phones equipped with touchscreens, but our portable computers are too.

Touchscreens for Businesses

Floor standing touchscreen display

Now that touchscreens are in the public consciousness, more and more businesses are using them to for connecting with customers. The easy-to-use design of tablets makes them perfect for featuring digital catalogs or self-checkout areas. Companies also bring them to trade shows, showing their portfolio to passersby that can browse at their own pace.

Large touchscreen stands are another great promotional tool for businesses. These kiosks provide a large area that allow customers to browse through products, menu items, maps and more. These customizable digital displays make it easy for anyone to navigate through a business's presentation. The stands support up to ten points of contact and wireless connectivity, allowing companies to feature almost anything they want.

Future

Near Future: Flexibility and Durability

We've come so far in creating new ways to interact with computers, what could possibly come next? One new development is right around the corner: flexible smartphones. Samsung has featured prototypes since 2013 of devices with a bending screen and there have been successive rumors over the years about an impending release. This design would be great for smartphones, which are often damaged from minor bends. However, it's difficult keeping all the different parts of the device in contact with each other when the case flexes. Samsung believes it will have the first flexible smartphone out in 2018, but the technology is still unproven.

Touchscreen Anywhere

Why limit the touch display to the device? Why not project the touchscreen onto any surface? OmniTouch attempts to accomplish this by with a projector that puts the display on walls, tables, books, and even on human skin while a camera detects the input. Imagine answering a text on your arm rather than having to pull out your phone! The model showed in 2011 by Chris Harringon was a shoulder-mounted wearable computer. The "always-available" surface has not seen much development in recent years, but it might make a comeback when technology catches up. After all, it took 24 years after the first smartphone was released before they became popular!

Advanced Haptics

What if we could feel the screen when we touch it? A touchscreen with advanced haptic technology could change to feel like different textures or feature physical bumps as buttons. This was demonstrated by Tanvas at the Consumer Electronics Show in 2017, featuring different types of fabric. Reporters say that the screen didn't magically feel like these textures, but they could definitely feel the difference between them. In time this could be one of the many features incorporated into smartphones!

Ultrahaptics

Put touch controls anywhere without being limited to a physical surface. In 2013, the company Ultrahaptics demonstrated ultrasonic sound waves that change air pressure and create interactive 3D objects. It sounds crazy, but it works. These controls are totally invisible but they can be felt and interacted with like a physical knob or lever. The ultrasound sensations won't create a wall that your hand couldn't move through, but you'd definitely be able to feel it. Ultrahaptics is looking to incorporate the technology in cars, giving drivers extra control without the need to look at a screen.

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