Touchscreens are everywhere. We have them in our banking machines, self-serve kiosks of all sorts, restaurants, and of course in our pockets with our cell phones. Touchscreens have actually been around since the late 1960s, although something called resistive touch technology (the most common form of touch in use today) didn't come out until 1977. Still, the technology has been around longer than most people realize.
Other than getting more accurate and certainly cheaper to produce, there really hasn't been a lot of apparent development with touchscreens. At least, that's how it appears. If touchscreens can be faulted for anything, it's that they are somewhat "dead" in the sense that they do not provide feedback. Most also rely on small electrical charges that come from the tips of your fingers, which precludes the use of gloves (although the fashionable gloves from glove.ly I tried recently actually solve this problem perfectly). In our society where we want more, faster, better, now, how can we possibly be stuck with something from 1977? I mean, that's the year that the first personal all-in-one computer (the Commodore PET) was demonstrated.
It turns out that engineers have been working away at producing a better touchscreen with something called haptic technology. Haptic is a Greek word that means any nonverbal communication involving touch, and screens that provide this sort of feedback are on the way.
Engineers at Disney of all places are working on a tactile feedback touch screen that provides the sensation of textures of real world objects on your screen. An ExtremeTech article contains a video that explains it in a visual way including some of the practical uses. Beyond the obvious uses in applications like games, Disney hopes to provide tactile real-time feedback to users when combined with a camera. This would allow someone who is blind (or partially blind) to better understand what is in front of them before actually touching it (or running into it) and it could even be used in more dangerous situations such as allowing visitors at Disney theme parks to virtually pet animals that are behind glass for safety reasons.
Touch feedback has been present in video games for some time now (often referred to as "rumble") but now new controllers such as the one coming out from Valve in their Steam Box and Microsoft's Xbox One provide a higher level experience. In the case of the Xbox, the new controllers have what are called "Impulse Triggers" which give you separate feedback to just your fingertips connected to that part of the controller and not just the entire controller as a whole. It definitely enhances the gaming experience and makes you feel more immersed in the virtual world you are playing in.
Personally, I also see uses in the art world. We all know that it's an entirely different experience seeing art in person because you can see the layering and texturing of the paint on the canvas, but could you imagine being able to run your hands over the Mona Lisa without the fear of being arrested? It would provide an entirely new experience for something that has been around for thousands of years. I'm sure this topic alone could spark a lot of debate, so let's not get all touchy feely about it.
Companies like Immersion (immersion.com) and Senseg (senseg.com) are leaders in this technology and have been working on products for a few years now. Senseg is hoping the term "feel screen" catches on and becomes what everyone says. Apple, the largest manufacturer that includes touchscreen technology in its products, has also recently filed patent applications surrounding haptic feedback. Quite honestly, it's only a matter of time before these devices become ubiquitous on all of our devices. My only hope is that when we are being given negative feedback from the screen, it's a little less painful than the electric shocks Bill Murray's character was giving out in the opening of the 1984 film Ghostbusters. If you don't remember that, now is a perfect time to watch it again.
Syd Bolton is the curator of the Personal Computer Museum and the manager of Information Technology at ACIC/Methapharm. You can reach him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by snail mail care of The Brantford Expositor.