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A Brief History of Touchscreen Technology

06 June 2018

Through the mobile devices we use, touchscreens are literally putting the world at our fingertips morning, noon, and night. And it’s not just our personal devices that are all around us, touch screens are now prominent in busy high streets, airports, and industrial areas, but it wasn’t always so.

Here we’re going to take a brief look at the history of touchscreen technology.

The beginning

In 1965 E.A. Johnson invented, what is generally considered the first finger driven touchscreen. Published in Electronic Letters, Johnson’s article “Touch display – a novel input/output device for computers” outlined a type of touchscreen that many personal devices today use; capacitive touch.

Development

In the 1970’s Dr Sam Hurst developed a new type of sensor called the “Elograph”. Discovered almost by accident, Hurst’s touch screen was not transparent, as most touchscreens are today. Using the force of a touch, the technology required a conductive layer to contact a separate layer below containing an X and Y axis, the coordinates were then transmitted to a computer. Today we refer to this type of touchscreen technology as “resistive” and is one of the most widely used touch variants. Later in 1974, the first transparent resistive touchscreen was developed by Hurst and his team (the Elographics) and was patented in 1977.

Further Development

In 1982 Nimish Mehta, at the University of Toronto developed a “touch tablet” device, using frosted glass, with a camera behind it that could recognise shadows and dark spots on the screen. This gestural interaction was then used by American computer Artist, Myron Krueger, to design an optical system that could track hand movements. Originally known as Video Place, it later became Video Desk in 1983.

This system used projectors and video cameras to track hands, fingers, and the people they belonged to. However, unlike “true” multitouch technology, it wasn’t aware of who or what was touching it.

Early Adoption

Touchscreens began to become commercialised during the 1980’s when HP (then known as Hewlett-Packard) created the HP-150. This computer featured a 9” CRT display, with infrared (IR) detectors around the edge that could detect when a user’s finger interacted with the screen, however there were noticeable issues with the system. The infrared technology was not very reliable and often a “touch” would block more than one sensor, and the system would not be able to tell where the real touch was occurring.

A real step forward came in 1983 when Bob Boie, of Bell Labs, created a new transparent touch overlay, by utilising a capacitive array over a CRT. This advancement led to the capacitive technology we see today in tablets and smartphones.

In 1993, IBM and BellSouth launched the Simon Personal Communicator, one of the first cellphones with touchscreen technology. Advanced for its time, it featured paging capabilities, an e-mail, an appointment schedule, an address book, a calculator, and a resistive touchscreen operated with a stylus to navigate through menus and to input data.

Later that year Apple released the Newton PDA, with handwriting recognition. The software didn’t work very well, but undeterred, Apple continued to improve, and manufacture the Newton for a further 6 years.

Towards the end of the 90’s University of Delaware graduate student, Wayne Westerman published a doctoral dissertation entitled “Hand Tracking, Finger Identification, and Chordic Manipulation on a Multi-Touch Surface.” The paper detailed the mechanisms behind what we know today as multitouch capacitive technology. Westerman then formed a company called FingerWorks, and began manufacturing gesture-based products, including the iGesture pad; a PDA device that allowed one handed gesturing. FingerWorks was eventually bought by Apple in 2005, and the technology became widely available in their phones and music players in 2007.

Innovation

The mass adoption of projected capacitive (or p-cap) touch technology by smartphones and tablets, has created a greater demand for large format, commercial applications such as; digital signage, industrial and point of sale (POS), to become interactive, and here’s where the technology has really come into its own.

Scaling up p-cap touch sensors to close to 100” diameter is not an easy task, meaning that we’ve had to innovate, creating new manufacturing techniques, and advanced controller electronics, to offer the same responsiveness consumers expect from their hand-held interactive device.

Having been developing and manufacturing p-cap touch sensors for over 20 years we have become rather good at it, first with the introduction of ZyTouch®; a “hot-laminated”, and initially single-touch solution, which remains the toughest, and most durable touchscreen on the market. Over the next decade we developed our proprietary “cold-lamination” manufacturing technique, allowing the development of touch sensors made from a single glass substrate (ZyBrid®), which thanks to Zytronic’s 50+ years of glass processing knowhow, is tough, durable and totally customisable (even in ones and twos). During the same period, our talented R&D team were hard at work advancing our touch controller technology to accompany the unique touch sensors, and in 2011 we introduced our first multi-touch controller and sensor, which offered the same durable and customisable options as standard ZyBrid, but with true multitouch capabilities (up to 40 simultaneous touch points).

 

Never standing still, we’ve continued to invest in and advance our proprietary touch technology, and this month  released the all-new ZXY500 multi touch controller based on our own design ASIC (not a 3rd party solution) – fully optimised to our patented touch sensing technology. This innovative new range of control electronics allows touch screens to be designed with ultra-narrow inactive borders and even facilitate the integration of contact-less peripheral systems such as NFC payment, and phone charging alongside the touch sensors.

For additional information about our new ZXY500 controller range, see the data sheet, and our FaB’s .

Contact us if you’d like to find out more, or discus any new touch applications.

 

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