The touch revolution

Touch screen makers poised to make sci fi come to life

Rebecca Lambert
9 November 2012

9 min read

The digital world is poised to become more immersive than ever. From super touch screens that recognize multiple users and objects, to those that can shape-shift to create physical buttons and give users the sensation of textures, a number of innovators around the world are pushing the boundaries of touch-screen development.

In January 2012, next-generation haptic technology developer Senseg unveiled the first production-ready product that turns touch screens into “feel screens.” Using electrically generated force fields, Senseg’s patented Tixel technology mimics the feel of physical textures, edges and contours on touch screens.

A “feel screen” gives a user the texture of cotton or silk as they browse clothes online, basalt or obsidian rocks as they research volcanoes, or leather versus velvet when purchasing a sofa on the Web. Feel can also guide people in how they use a device, allowing them either to minimize the visual focus required for accurate operation, or to enrich a multi-modal experience that incorporates graphics, sound and touch.

Senseg is just one of many innovators changing users’ experiences with computer and video screens. At SID Display Week 2012, Touch Revolution and Tactus Technology showcased a prototype Android tablet with a physical keyboard that rises from a flat touch screen. Using innovative microfluidic technology, a patented Tactile Layer component provides a next-generation haptic user interface with real physical buttons, guidelines, or shapes that rise out of the surface (and recede to invisibility) from any touch screen. Users can feel, press, and interact with these physical buttons just like they would use keys on a keyboard. When they are no longer needed, the buttons recede into the surface and become invisible. Because the Tactile Layer replaces another layer in the display stack, it adds no thickness to a standard touch screen display. For many, these innovations may seem impossibly futuristic, but they are all real and will soon be hitting the mainstream.


For decades, the storytellers of Hollywood have attempted to predict how our world may look in the future – giving us visions of intelligent robots, talking computers, 3D holographs, flying cars and more. It is surprising how often they get it right. In particular, visions of how we may interact with digital content in the future have proven particularly accurate. In the original Disney sci-fi film Tron produced in 1982, for example, the head of ENCOM communicates with the evil computer Master Control Program using a large tabletop computer touch screen, remarkably similar to the modern-day Samsung SUR40 with Microsoft PixelSense technology.

Twenty years later, in 2002, Minority Report captured the imagination of a new generation as Tom Cruise’s character pulled on a set of black gloves to deftly manipulate components, graphics and details on a wrap-around bank of transparent screens. While the 2054 depicted in the movie is still very much in the future, today’s high-tech industry is already delivering Minority Report-style technology. Millions of people worldwide, for example, are using Microsoft Kinect to play games on their Xbox 360s without a controller. Combining an RGB camera, depth sensor, multi-array microphone and custom processor running proprietary software, Kinect tracks full-body movements in 3D, recognizes facial expressions, and understands voice commands to create a new level of gaming experience. Although a product that combines both gesture and touch is not available yet on the open market, the industry does have the capabilities to create it.

1.3 billion

The global market for touch screen modules in mobile devices will reach 1.3 billion units by 2018. Global Industry Analysts

As Richard Ebner, CEO of Austria-based touch screen developer isiQiri, explains, Hollywood’s science fiction ideas only become reality when there is a demand for their existence. “Today’s form factors are certainly differing from what we saw in Minority Report,” Ebner says. “There is no need for special gloves to handle the content, and the technology needs to be much more integrated into what we already have around us, like walls or furniture, because this is where the use cases are.

”While touch-screen development has accelerated in the past few years, the idea has been around for nearly five decades. Many believe that the first-ever touch screen was invented by E.A. Johnson, an employee of the Royal Radar Establishment in Malvern, UK, when he described his ideas for a capacitive touch screen in 1965.

With diagrams and photographs of a prototype, Johnson explained not only how the technology worked but also how air traffic controllers could use it by interacting directly with blips on their screens. Although this very early design was rudimentary and could only recognize one touch at a time, similar technology has made its way into the modern-day iPhone.


Since the advent of Apple’s iPhone, the touch screen market has accelerated at an astonishing pace, spawning a new generation of start-ups keen to make their marks on the industry. Most leave marketing to the device manufacturers they supply, so chances are good that you don’t know the innovative companies’ names. Their products, however, are quickly infiltrating our workplaces and homes.

Touch Revolution, which was founded by industry pioneers in the touch-device market, including ex-Apple employee Mark Hamblin, is focused on delivering the iPhone experience on an even larger scale. “During my time at Apple, I was involved in a number of exciting projects, most recently as a senior product design engineer working specifically on the iPhone touch screen,” Hamblin explains. “After developing the iPhone and seeing how it was accepted in the market and how it transformed the smartphone industry, I knew immediately that this was something special and I wanted to concentrate on taking the touch-enabled experience even further.

” Before the iPhone was launched in 2007, touch screens were used almost exclusively by companies that could afford experimental trials of the technology. Despite gaining some early traction in the mobile phone space, the screens lacked responsiveness, and most devices could sense only one point of contact at a time. Today, high quality multi-touch is expected as standard in most mobile devices, and the technology’s application is set for exponential growth.

A recent Global Industry Analysts (GIA) study titled “Touch Screens in Mobile Devices: A Global Strategic Business Report,” projects the global market for touch-screen modules in mobile devices will reach 1.3 billion units by 2018, compared to estimated sales of 184.3 million units in 2009. Of that 1.3 billion, projected capacitive (p-cap) touch screens, which are used in the iPhone, represent the largest market for mobile devices, a share that is only expected to grow.

P-cap screens allow users to easily navigate and manipulate digital objects with their fingertips, without having to press or use a stylus. This capability has quickly made p-cap screens the technology of choice for most touch-screen devices, including smartphones, tablets, e-readers, global positioning units (GPUs), TVs and more. Although they cost a little more than other options, such as resistive capacitive screens, many believe the enhanced user experience easily justifies the price premium.

“Since the iPhone, user expectations have changed dramatically,” Hamblin says. “Everyone now expects most screens to be touch-enabled and perform like the iPhone does. If you think about it, it’s the most natural way to interact with digital content. Give a phone to a young child and they’ll immediately start touching the screen.”

Hamblin believes that, based on the usability factor alone, touch screens will soon take over many interfaces in the home and workplace. “Take white goods, for example,” Hamblin says. “We have a number of projects developing touch-screen interfaces for the likes of washing machines and microwaves.”

Projected capacitive (p-cap) touch screens allow users to navigate apps with their fingertips, making them the technology of choice for mobile devices.

For an OEM, the possibilities of touch are significant. “Instead of providing a certain number of buttons to operate the washing machine, a touch screen interface provides the user with multiple options,” Hamblin says. “You can completely reconfigure the interface for the mode it is in to suit the person using it. A teenager may only want a simple on/off function. A more experienced user may want access to advanced wash settings. Touch interfaces can provide that flexibility. You can also future-proof the interface. If an OEM wants to add new features and functionality to a microwave, for example, they just have to update the software.”

“Since the iPhone, everyone now expects most screens to be touch-enabled and perform like the iPhone does.”

Mark Hamblin
Touch Revolution co-founder


While Apple certainly deserves credit for kicking off the touch revolution, other leading technology vendors are having a profound influence as well. For example, Samsung’s range of Super AMOLED screens, with integrated touch capabilities and anti-glare technology, are popular in the smartphone market. Microsoft, despite heavy criticism for its sluggish response to the Apple iPad tablet, is hoping to make a big impact in the tablet market with its Microsoft Surface line of touch screen tablet PCs, due to hit the market this year.

In fact, Microsoft’s use of touch technology goes back a number of years. In May 2007, Microsoft became one of the first major technology companies to bring large-scale multi-touch computing to market in a commercially ready product. This tabletop offering has since evolved into the Samsung SUR40 with Microsoft PixelSense. The 360-degree, 10-cm (4-inch) thick product has a horizontal user interface that responds to touch, natural hand gestures, and real-world objects placed on the display, allowing users to interact with information and digital content in a simple and intuitive way.

MSNBC’s coverage of the 2008 presidential election featured a first generation of the Microsoft touch-screen table in action. MSNBC political director Chuck Todd used the screen during broadcasts to quickly and easily share information and analysis of the race leading up to the election. He analyzed polling and election results, viewed trends and demographic information, and explored county maps to determine voting patterns and predict outcomes – all with a flick of his finger.
At the Rio iBar in Las Vegas, meanwhile, customers can create and order a signature cocktail by interacting with the touch screen at their table. They can also explore the surrounding area virtually, making friends and chatting with people seated at other units in the bar.

“Traditional computer interfaces are designed for individuals, but when people want to meet and work together face-to-face, computers can get in the way,” says Adam Bogue, president and founder of Circle Twelve, which recently was featured in the Gartner report “Cool Vendors in Imaging and Display Devices 2012.”

“Broad acceptance of multi-touch smartphones, and now tablets, sets the stage for growth in larger displays and tabletop computers for collaboration,” Bogue said. “As this happens, the feature of ‘multi-user’ – or knowing who is who – will be increasingly important.”

Ebner of isiQiri agrees that the future of touch screens lies in developing larger-sized devices that can recognize multiple users simultaneously. Such screens will allow multiple people to interact on a single screen.

“This trend is particularly being driven by the ever-falling prices of large LCD panels,” Ebner says. “Today you can buy systems that can register 30 or more simultaneous touches, but the demand for this type of scale doesn’t really exist. I think that the sweet spot will be for around four to eight touches, allowing two to four users to interact with a device at any one time – be it to look at a photo album and zoom in on pictures on a touch screen coffee table, access information on a touch screen information kiosk, or for a family to place an order in a restaurant using a touch-screen menu.”

“Broad acceptance of multi-touch smartphones, and now tablets, sets the stage for growth in larger displays and tabletop computers for collaboration.”

Adam Bogue
President and Founder of Circle Twelve

New York City, for example, is conducting trials of smart, 81-cm (32-inch) touch screens, which have replaced approximately 250 payphones. The user-friendly screens look more attractive than the dated payphone and provide relevant information about local neighborhoods, listing nearby restaurants, stores, attractions, traffic updates and more. Built to be water- and dust-proof, the screens can be cleaned with a hose. If the pilot program goes well, all of the city’s 12,500 payphones could be replaced.

Challenging Apple’s dominant iPad, Microsoft unveiled its Surface tablet, featuring a pressure- sensitive, 3mm-thick Touch Cover keyboard that attaches to the tablet via a magnetic connector. (Photo courtesy of Microsoft)


The increasing use of touch technology is creating demand for companies like Senseg, Touch Revolution and Tactus Technology to further enhance the user experience. In this spirit, they are working to bring the sense of touch to touch screens.

Senseg is a leader in the field of adding tactile experiences to touch screens. “We can enhance the visual content on a display with touch feedback that creates the sensation of moving a vinyl record on a DJ music app, feeling sand when accessing images of the Gobi Desert, or feeling the corner of a page when reading an e-book on a tablet,” says Ville Mäkinen, founder and CTO of Senseg. “We have created highly efficient solutions that provide the precise tactile sensations right at the location of the user’s finger without shaking the whole device, and yet consume very little power on mobile devices.”

Disney Research has developed a similar concept with REVEL. This augmented reality tactile technology allows Disney to change the feeling of real objects by augmenting them with virtual tactile textures. The virtual textures come from a device worn by the user. The device injects a weak electrical signal anywhere on the user’s body to create an oscillating electrical field around the user’s fingers. When the user moves their fingers over a surface, they feel the sensation of distinctive tactile textures.

Disney Research also is experimenting with the power of Microsoft’s gesture-based innovation Kinect, taking it beyond gaming scenarios into everyday life. Called Touché, the company’s capacitive-sensing technology can detect a variety of touch gestures applied to everyday objects. Researchers say it could be used to create smart doorknobs that unlock when grasped in a certain way, or allow tables and chairs to sense the position of people using them. It could also let users control their phones by touching their fingers together or tapping their palms.

Such functionality has numerous compelling applications. Although researchers are still investigating its full potential, they have already highlighted applications in gaming, adaptive environments, smart offices, in-vehicle interaction, and rehabilitation.

So when can we expect to see this type of functionality come to our computer screens, mobile devices and more? Senseg expects OEMs to integrate its technology into consumer products beginning in 2013. Tactus Technology and Touch Revolution’s Tactile Layer has also been well received in the industry, with gaming controls and navigation devices among their customers’ top requests. Initial products using the technology are expected to be released by mid-2013.

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