Like many other innovations, touchscreens have become so prevalent in our daily lives that it’s easy to forget how incredible this technology is. Read on for a look at six amazing facts that will remind you why touchscreens are so awesome.
1. There are two main kinds of touchscreens.
In the world of touchscreens, there are two basic types: resistive and capacitive. As the name implies, a resistive touchscreen is characterized by the way it “resists” the touch of your finger. Simply swiping your finger across a resistive touchscreen won’t have any effect. Instead, you have to press down with more force or use a tool like a stylus or electronic pen. When you press down on a resistive touchscreen, the top layer of the display comes into contact with an electrically conductive layer that lies just underneath it. When these two layers are touching, the software registers a change in the electrical current at the spot where you’re pressing and carries out the corresponding function. (In other words, you can think of a resistive touchscreen kind of like a transparent keyboard laid on top of the display: pressing the screen is just like pressing a key on a keyboard.) Resistive touchscreens are durable and consistent, but they can only handle one touch at a time. They are most often used in applications such as kiosks that sell subway tickets, for example, or supermarket checkout counters.
In contrast, a capacitive touchscreen is specifically designed to work with your finger’s touch. Capacitive touchscreens don’t register your touch through pressure. Instead, they work when they are touched by anything with an electrical current (which includes human skin). These touchscreens function thanks to the electrostatic grid of extremely tiny wires that make up the display. When you touch these wires, they complete the electrical circuit, thus allowing the display to register your touch. Capacitive touchscreens are the industry standard for personal electronics, including smartphones.
2. Touchscreen technology has existed since the 1960s.
It’s easy to think of touchscreen technology as a recent development, but in fact, it’s been around for more than five decades. The first capacitive touchscreen was developed in the 1960s by E.A. Johnson. He created a touchscreen that registered one touch at a time and was primarily used in air traffic control systems. One of the next major applications of touchscreen technology was in the 1970s at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), where the technology was used in the control room of the Super Proton Synchrotron particle accelerator.
3. The first touchscreen phone was launched 25 years ago.
Believe it or not, the first mobile phone with a touchscreen was released in 1994, 13 years prior to the launch of the iPhone. The device, which is generally considered to be the first “smartphone,” was the IBM Simon. Its touchscreen interface could be controlled using a stylus; it featured 1 MB of storage; and it supported calls, e-mails, faxes, and a variety of early apps including calendars, maps, and news. However, although it was groundbreaking at the time, Simon was hampered by a number of factors, including a high price tag and weak battery life, and it didn’t last very long on the market.
4. Many products have been created to work with touchscreens.
As mentioned before, the capacitive screen on your smartphone uses your skin’s electrical conductivity to detect gestures and input. However, when that electrical connection is broken, as it is when you’re wearing gloves, for example, the screen can’t register your touch, and consequently won’t function. In order to solve this problem, many companies have been altering everyday objects so that they will be able to work with touchscreens. For instance, it’s now possible to find gloves and even bandages made with touchscreen-friendly material, so you can still use your smartphone even though there’s a barrier between your skin and the screen.
5. If you don’t have a stylus, you can try a banana.
Your smartphone’s capacitive touchscreen will work with anything that has an electrical current. This includes your fingers, as well as many food items which—believe it or not—are electrical conductors. It’s perhaps not very practical to try to control your smartphone with a banana or an avocado, but it’s certainly a fun experiment.
6. All kinds of products are being developed to have touch sensitive surfaces.
Touchscreens are not restricted to personal electronics any longer. Researchers around the world, such as the Future Interfaces Group (FIG) at Carnegie Mellon University, are working to make touch-sensitive surfaces out of just about anything. The basic technique to do this involves applying an electrically conductive coating or materials to everyday objects or ordinary surfaces. When these conductive materials are attached to electrodes, they can sense your finger’s position and gestures. According to FIG, touch-sensitive objects that we can expect to see in the future include walls, furniture, car steering wheels, and toys.