Making Touchscreens live up to their name

Posted by: CEO, Steven D. Domenikos

Touchscreens surround us. They are inextricably linked to our daily lives. Touchscreens bring a great amount of directness into the communication between human and machine. For example, buttons can be directly pressed where they are instead of moving a mouse, and text can be written in place.

It is no secret that people spend a lot of time with their touchscreens, smartphones and other electronic gadgets these days. How much time that actually is, is astonishing nonetheless: according to Nielsen’s latest Total Audience Report, Americans aged 18 and older spend roughly ten and a half hours a day watching TV, listening to the radio or using their smartphones, tablets, and other devices.

If we exclude the TV watching and radio listening time, it will still leave us on the average with about 5 to 6 hours per day of touchscreen interaction. Considering that most people are awake 16 to 18 hours a day, this means that at least a third of our total awake time is spent touching glass. We spend so much time holding and using our smartphones and tablet computers that they inevitably condition our behavior in the rest of our life. If we are spending hours a day constantly on edge, gingerly making sure our fingers daintily dance across a smartphone screen, watching carefully that we are pressing the right buttons, aren’t we subtly sapping our sense of physical assertiveness? Such a device won’t let you hold it the way you would hold a common everyday object, like a glass of water, a book, or a cup of coffee, all of which invite sturdy, assertive grips. Doesn’t this behavior transfer to our daily interactions with other people, particularly during physical contact, and does it not numb our sense of touch, the most crucial sense to our development?

Research shows that increased touchscreen use has the potential to create social disconnection, and negatively impact the development of social and relational skills. Especially in children, research showed that just one week of engagement in typical overnight camp activities, with no screen time, led to a significant improvement in children’s ability to read non-verbal emotional cues. Non-verbal cues are a critical component of social communication, and deficits in this area create difficulties for children in forming relationships and communicating effectively with others.

That is, we believe, incorporating tactile feedback into the touchscreen experience is not merely a feature of intrinsic value or just improved user interaction. In today’s world, it is rather an essential element in learning, human development and growth. So far, convincing tactile feedback implementations have been underwhelming although the fundamental technology is available. An argument can be made that most touchscreen designers are much less proficient with touch/tactile feedback as a design language compared to sight/sound as a design language. Touch, however, has immense persuasive power.  Our sense of touch has strengths that cannot be replicated by audio-visual experiences. Tactile feedback is a fundamental component of natural and intuitive interaction with objects, whether those are real or virtual and humans respond emotionally and instinctively to touch.

Brief History of touchscreens

But where did touchscreens come from? Why the became so popular? The first touchscreen was invented in 1965 by Eric A. Johnson who worked at the Royal Radar Establishment in Malvern, England. His first article, “Touch display—a novel input/output device for computers” describes his work and features a diagram of the design. The invention is known as a capacitive touchscreen, which uses an insulator, in this case glass, coated with a transparent conductor, like indium tin oxide. Johnson patented his design in 1966, improved it in 1968, and wrote another article in the same year. At some point, it was adopted by British air traffic controllers and was used into the 1990s.

Another design, the resistive touchscreen, came in the 1970s by American inventor, Dr. G. Samuel Hurst. Tech companies were starting to take notice of this new way to interact with computers. Hewlett-Packard was the first to release a product that put touchscreens in the hands of everyday users. The first multi-touch overlay was developed in 1984 by Bob Boie of Bell Labs, creating a true capacitive screen that could detect multiple points of contact. At this time, IBM released the first cellphone with a touchscreen, the Simon Personal Communicator. Nintendo released the first successful video game console with touch input in 2004, the DS. Microsoft began developing their own devices as well. The Microsoft Surface (not to be confused with today’s line of tablets) was a computer the size of table with a flat touchscreen display on top. Apple through the iPad and iPhone popularized the touchscreen in Consumer Electronics. Soon, ATMs, gas pumps, mall displays, elevator controls, checkout counters and almost anything imaginable, would feature a touch panel as it grew in popularity.

One of the driving forces of touchscreens are mobile devices and applications. For devices that require to fit into the pocket space is a precious commodity. For many people, the keyboard is the most important input device still, and cannot be replaced by a smooth surface of virtual buttons.  It has already been shown in experiments that tactile feedback can significantly improve entry speed and error rates up to empirical values experienced with normal keyboards. Under certain conditions, haptic (i.e., tactile) information can be ingested up to five times faster than visual information. This is mostly due to the fact that haptic information goes through less processing stages than visual information.

What if we could feel what is on the screen when we touch it?

Growing consumer preference for using 3D touchscreens, virtual gaming, and interactive signs, is increasing the market demand for haptic technology. This technology provides several advantages such as enhanced user experience, emotional depth, and a feel of a realistic and immersive environment. Manufacturers seeking to maintain a competitive advantage over the rivals in this industry are rushing to implement various forms of haptics. Apple’s Taptic Engine, introduced into the track pad of the Apple laptops, uses an electromagnetic motor to trick fingers into feeling things (button clicks, etc.) that are not actually there. Wearables and phones are integrating haptic feedback through buzzes and vibrations that alert or provide feedback to improve users’ experiences. Most of these current haptic features however are limited to the all-too-familiar robotic buzz of notifications or rudimentary “taps” from a virtual keyboard. The next wave of haptic technology – dynamic or continuous haptics – could help integrate high fidelity sensory experiences into the media and content viewed on phones, tablets and other devices

Dynamic Haptics™

First introduced by Tactai™, the notion of dynamic haptics denotes tactile feedback that is generated continuously in real time to respond to a user’s particular interaction with a touchscreen object. Specifically, Tactai technology entails realistic rendering of surface textures and features such as bumps, buttons, and edges using a patented data-driven methodology. The derived surface model of an object to be made touchable, either in 2D or 3D, is then combined in real-time with the speed of a user’s fingers navigating a touchscreen and with the force of such exploration. Accommodating for latency in the computations, the resulting experience delivers convincing and realistic tactile sensations that are more satisfying to a human user since they closely mirror how we interact with physical objects in the real world.



Missing haptic feedback is the major disadvantage for the touchscreen as an input device. Most market ready touchscreens give only visual feedback, which requires the user’s visual attention. But current research illustrates how to add haptic feedback to touchscreen devices. As tactile stimuli go much deeper than visual or auditory and they are recalled for much longer, users will demand more and more from touchscreens – more interactivity, better responsiveness, deeper personalization, and increasingly more powerful digital experiences.