Touch Screens Are Everywhere

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9/14/2012 8:51:44 AM

Touch screens are everywhere now…but they have been around longer than you think.

As technology moves forward like an unstoppable juggernaut, new ideas constantly emerge. And before long these new ideas become commonplace; we see them everywhere, and accept them as part of the way that we live with great ease. And many of these technologies do their bit to make our lives easier, too.

Description: In Touch

One such technology is the touch screen. Touch screen and touch sensitive technology can be found everywhere around us these days, in mobile phones and computer systems, tablet devices and even shopping mall information kiosks. With Windows 8 fast approaching, the use of touch screen technology will increase even more. This new operating system will likely be as pervasive as previous versions of Windows, and its promotion of touch control will doubtless spur consumers to increase demand for a wider variety of compatible devices. This will, in turn, drive manufacturers to working the technology into more and more devices...

We’re not complaining. Touch screens are cool, and recent advances in not only the core ideas, but also associated materials (like Gorilla Glass) mean that we can expect better performance and tougher devices. This is one new technology that, sticky finger marks aside, virtually everyone loves, and come to grips with.

But are touch screens really new technology? We would like to think so, because we live in an ‘advanced’ age, but the truth of the matter is that touch sensitive screen technology has been around almost as long as computers have. OK, maybe not quite as long, because computers go back a stretch. But touch screen technology (the theories behind it, at very least) has been around for almost fifty years... it is only recently that it has become so pervasive, though.

In 1965, E.A. Johnson published a short article describing his work on capacitive touch screens. A later article by the same author - this time with photographs and diagrams - came out two years later, and a further article in 1968 described how his work could be applied in the field of air traffic control. This was probably because phones were still cabled and computers weren’t in every home back then. And tablets... well, they weren’t even using them on Star Trek yet.

A transparent touch screen was developed in the early 1 970s by Bent Stumpe, with the help of Frank Beck, both of whom worked for CERN. In 1973, CERN manufactured and put the technology to use. Another example was a resistive touch screen developed by American inventor G Samuel Hurst, and was put into production in 1 982.

1983 saw one of the world’s first touch screen computers become available. Based on Intel’s 8088 technology, Hewlett Packard’s HP-1 50 was not IBM compatible, but did make use of MS-DOS.

It packed a whopping 8MHz of CPU power, and its RAM could be upgraded from 256kb to 640kb. It is interesting to note that cell phones have more power than that these days, but back in 1983, the HP-1 50 was a very powerful machine indeed. It even had an option for an internal hard disk.

But the HP-1 50 was not a true touch screen device. Rather, it used infrared emitter technology to detect the position of any nontransparent object in relation to the screen. Because the emitters were arrayed along the edges of the screen and required tiny holes to work, problems arose when they became clogged with dust. The replacement to the HP-1 50 had a touch screen option, but it wasn’t widely used.

In 1986, touch screen technology made its way to point of sale in many businesses (where it would become a common sight) thanks to the Atari 520ST colour computer.

In the early 1990s, video game publisher Sega attempted to follow up their Game Gear hand held console with a device that also used touch screen technology. The project was shelved, though, due to the restrictive costs of producing the screens. It wasn’t until 2004 that touch screens and gaming made a proper connection, in the form of Nintendo’s DS.

The biggest leap forward that touches screen technology made was arguably the step that introduced it to millions of users around the world. Before multi-touch technology, these screens often relied on stylus devices. Even those that didn’t were hampered by the fact that the screens could only discern one point of contact at a time, and could only rarely gauge the pressure of the touch.

Multi-touch technology changed the playing field completely. Screens could now sense more than one point of contact, and could even be pressure sensitive. Various gestures could now be built into software, including ideas like ‘pinch to zoom’.

Almost overnight, touch screen have sprung up everywhere. The implementation of this technology adds ease of use to many devices, and increases the tactile appeal of working with technology. And where it will go in the future is anyone’s guess. But this ‘new’ technology has been in development for quite some time, so decades worth of dedicated research will likely have some amazing advances in store for us in the very near future.

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