There was a time, not too long ago, when the only touch-sensitive screens you could find in consumer gadgets were those on stylus-driven PDAs and tablet computers; touch-based systems were, at that point, too expensive and clunky to replace the fine-tuned accuracy of the mouse or keyboard. But then came the mass-market, stylus-driven Nintendo DS and, later, the iPhone and its multi-touchscreen – and everything changed. Touchscreens are now built into everything from mobiles to printers, GPSs, ATMs, public kiosks and coffee machines – but they aren't all the same.
The three most common touch screen technologies include Resistive, Capacitive and SAW (surface acoustic wave). Each technology offers its own unique advantages and disadvantages as described below. Resistive and capacitive touch screen technologies are the most popular for industrial applications. They are both very reliable.
If the application requires that operators can wear gloves when using the touch screen, then resistive is the recommended technology as capacitive doesn't support gloves. If operation with gloves is not required, then capacitive technology is the preferred choice due to better optical characteristics.
A resistive touch screen typically uses a display overlay consisting of layers, each with a conductive coating on the inner surface. The conductive inner layers are separated by special separator dots, evenly distributed across the active area. Pressure causes internal electrical contact at the point of touch, supplying the electronic interface (touch screen controller) with vertical and horizontal analog voltages for digitization. For CRT applications, resistive touch screens are generally spherical (curved) to match the CRT and minimize parallax. The nature of the material used for curved (spherical) applications limits light throughput such that two options are offered: Polished (clear) or antiglare.
The polished choice offers clarity but includes some glare. The antiglare choice will minimize glare, but will also slightly diffuse the light throughput (image). Either choice will demonstrate either more glare (polished) or more light diffusion (antiglare) than associated with typical non-touch screen displays. Despite the tradeoffs, the resistive touch screen technology remains a popular choice, often because it can be operated while wearing gloves (unlike capacitive technology). Note that resistive touch screen materials used for flat panel touch screens are different and demonstrate much better optical clarity (even with antiglare). The resistive technology is far more common for flat panel applications.
A capacitive touch screen includes an overlay made of glass with a coating of capacitive (charge storing) material deposited electrically over its surface. Oscillator circuits located at corners of the glass overlay will each measure the capacitance of a person touching the overlay. Each oscillator will vary in frequency according to where a person touches the overlay. A touch screen controller measures the frequency changes to determine the X and Y coordinates of the touch. Because the capacitive coating is even harder than the glass it is applied to, it is very resistant to scratches from (SIC) sharp objects. It can even resist damage from sparks. A capacitive touch screen cannot be activated while wearing most types of gloves (non-conductive).
A SAW touch screen uses a solid glass display overlay for the touch sensor. Two surface acoustic (sound) waves, inaudible to the human ear, are transmitted across the surface of the glass sensor, one for vertical detection and one for horizontal detection. Each wave is spread across the screen by bouncing off reflector arrays along the edges of the overlay. Two receivers detect the waves, one for each axis. Since the velocity of the acoustic wave through glass is known and the size of the overlay is fixed, the arrival time of the waves at the respective receivers is known. When the user touches the glass surface, the water content of the user's finger absorbs some of the energy of the acoustic wave, weakening it.
The controller circuitry measures the time at which the received amplitude dips to determine the X and Y coordinates of the touch location. In addition to the X and Y coordinates, SAW technology can also provide Z axis (depth) information. The harder the user presses against the screen, the more energy the finger will absorb, and the greater will be the dip in signal strength. The signal strength is then measured by the controller to provide the Z axis information. Today, few software applications are designed to make use of this feature.
Most manufacturers offer two controller configurations--ISA Bus and Serial-RS232. ISA bus controllers are contained on a standard printed circuit plug-in board and can only be used on ISA or EISA PCs. Depending on the manufacturer they may be interrupt driven, polled or be configured as another serial port. Serial controllers are contained on a small printed circuit board and are usually mounted in the video monitor cabinet. They are then cabled to a standard RS232 serial port on the host computer.
Most touch screen manufacturers offer some level of software support which include mouse emulators, software drivers, screen generators and development tools for Windows, OS/2, Macintosh and DOS. Most of the supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) software packages now available contain support for one or more touch technologies.
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