postheadericon ECS: Getting in Touch with Touchscreens

We all touch them, enjoy them, and are all bound to own one soon (if we don’t already), but what is it – precisely - that makes a touchscreen so touchable lovable?

Before we touch on that (pardon the pun), let’s first go back to the 1960’s, when touchscreens were just a pipe dream of computer engineers. Engineers and scientists were busy perfecting the cathode-ray tube for the then room-sized computers being built at the rate of just hundreds per year. Computers of that era came with monochrome TV-like screens, intricately paired with huge keyboards sporting clunky keys almost the size of small momos.

But even then, engineers understood that it was only a matter of time before images could be displayed on computer consoles, and that meant that the keyboard could become superfluous and even annoying for the user. After all, why not press on a picture of a dog to make it bark, instead of typing, “Dog, please bark.”

It wasn’t until 1977, when Dr. Sam Hurst invented the 5-wire resistive touchscreen panel, that this vision of using a touchscreen to interact with a computer became a reality. Yet it wasn’t until 1983, when the HP-150 business computer surfaced, that anyone could actually put their fingers on a computer screen and make a dog bark, or do anything else as complex.

In the meantime, the computer mouse had come of age and it seems that efforts to further develop the consumer touchscreen were sidelined. After all, one could just use the mouse to click on that dog and make it bark. So instead of manufacturers introducing multitudes of personal computers with touchscreen front-ends, that technology was relegated to public kiosks, cash registers, and ATM machines.

Yet touchscreens were evolving elsewhere – mainly for specific and professional applications. Advances in digitizers, microprocessors, and materials, were all gathering in a perfect storm that would, for example, reward computer artists with touchscreen drawing tablets, freeing them from ink and paper by handing them a stylus and touchscreen to use instead. DHL delivery folks were given small tablets and stylus for recording delivery events, and so on.

Then there was the really big shake up, as Apple Computers was doing something altogether different in their secret laboratory. They were developing a keyboard-less and mouse-less computer for the masses, and about the size of a small paperback book. The Apple Newton debuted in 1993 as the first Personal Digital Assistant (PDA), which was followed by the Palm Pilot in 1996, with the momentous popularity of the PDA building the stage for everything touchable that we see today: touchscreen netbooks, smartphones, iPods, tablets, book readers, hand-held gaming consoles, touchscreen monitors - all of it!

On the front of refrigerators, on sides of digital camcorders, and on the face of our smartphones, we are all pressing what is called a capacitive touchscreen with haptics. Capacitive means that the screen you are touching is not much of a screen at all, but instead a field of electrodes that sense the change in voltage as your finger presses into an electrified field.

And haptics is just a fancy word describing the tactile feedback technology that gives us the feeling that we have touched a real-life looking object, when we have touched nothing more than a bit of thin glass and circuitry. For example, when we press the virtual keypad on our smartphone, we feel a slight vibration and hear a click. We get the sensation of pressing a real key on a mechanical keyboard, but in reality, it’s all high-tech smoke and mirrors.

This combination of haptics, capacitive panels, advances in optical coatings (to resist fingerprints), and the very makeup of the human fingernail - is the “smoke” in the touchscreen mirror. The human fingernail, with its main makeup of keratin, makes our fingertip the perfect replacement for the plastic PDA stylus. Buffs of 1950’s Sci-Fi novels may recall Cordwainer Smith’s short story Scanners Live in Vain, where inhabitants of Smith’s futuristic world actually sharpened their fingernails in order to better operate their hand-held touchscreens.

And if Sci-Fi is any predictor of where touchscreens are going (as it has proven to be), just revisit any of these three blockbusters: Minority Report, Avatar, or Iron Man II, as they all showcase the future of the touchscreen – in which you stand in front of a translucent material, and just drag and drop whatever you desire with the wave of both hands and with a little help from your voice.

“Dog, just bark I say,” as you pet computer dog’s cute virtual 3-D head floating in near space.

While we may have to wait a few years before the “screen” in touchscreen completely disappears from view, we can get in touch with the future of touchscreens by just visiting any modern television shop or computer showroom. All screens, touch or not, are becoming razor thin, and it’s only a matter of time before all that’s left behind is an invisibly-thin membrane that holds the miniaturized circuitry - wirelessly displaying text, graphics, videos and more, and all of that streaming from an equally invisible computer.

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Jiggy Gaton
lives in Kathmandu and is an aging technologist - has been since the days of Woodstock - so in the words of Roland The Gunslinger "he is from a world now gone by." However, Jigs is extremely up-to-date on all things tech and is also available for hire.
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