Was it a smartphone or the ATM or a retail kiosk where you first used a touch screen? Touch screen devices are ubiquitous today, and people now expect their PCs at work and at home to have touch screen capability also. Why is touch screen technology so popular? It saves a lot of time, and eliminates the possibility of keyboarding errors for those of us who lack proficiency with the keyboard or are just impatient.

In its simplest definition, a touch screen is a type of display screen on a computer or mobile device that is sensitive to the touch of one or more fingers. Touch screen technology evolved from an invention by E.A. Johnson in the UK in the late 1960s, who used it to develop a system for air traffic control. Thereafter in the early 1970s, Sam Hurst further developed the idea into a touch sensor while an instructor at the University of Kentucky. He went on to found a company, Elographics, and patented the first resistive touch screen technology in 1977. That’s still the type of touch screens used in devices today. The first home computer with touch screen was introduced by HP in 1983, setting off several other uses for the technology throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. When Apple introduced the all-touch screen iPhone in 2007, that changed the game. It made the touch screen interface a standard for smartphones, tablet computers, and PCs and increased the demand for touch screen capability from both business users and consumers.

Touch screen technology has become more sophisticated since the 1960, but the basic principle remains the same: touch screens digitize the point of finger contact into an X-Y coordinate. Some touch screens have “multi-touch” capability, whereby you can use 1, 4, or even all 10 fingers. Most of today’s touch screens are passive, and there are three different methods of operation:

–Resistive: these screens are pressure sensitive, and use two active layers – a flexible plastic layer on top of a rigid plastic or glass layer, with insulated space in between. The layers are coated and different voltages are applied, so that when touched the relative voltages enable the controller to determine the X-Y location.

–Capacitive: this method uses one layer consisting of metallic coated glass, and voltage is applied to the corners of the screen. When the finger touches the screen it draws a bit of current that the controller then measures as a change in capacitance and the resulting X-Y location.

–Projected Capacitive: a hybrid method uses a sensor grid sandwiched between two glass layers. When the screen is touched, the controller measures change in capacitance in the grid and then the X-Y location. This grid system enables multi-touch capability, as is common in smartphones and tablet computers today.

Today, touch screen PCs are used in many industries and businesses. Medical staff members use touch screen PCs to quickly enter and update electronic medical records. Manufacturing facilities use touch screen PCs for their operations control systems. Retailers use them for self-service kiosks and POS systems. Hotels and airlines use them for check-in. Banks use them for ATMS but also for self-service stations within bank branches. Government agencies use them in emergency dispatch centers. Universities and schools use touch screen PCs to aid student learning.

What are some of the other uses of touch screens that you’ve seen lately? Where do you think the technology is going next?