A Brief History of Touchscreen Technology: Part Two

Last week we delved into the fascinating history of touchscreen technology, from its humble beginnings to the end of the 1980s.

This week, we’re picking up where we left off…

The 1990s: touchscreens come to the masses

IBM and BellSouth launched the Simon Personal Communicator in 1993, one of the first mobile phones to feature touchscreen technology. It had an email and calendar application, paging capabilities, an address book, an appointment schedule and a pen-based sketchpad, and used a resistive touchscreen with a stylus.

The same year Apple launched a touchscreen PDA (or ‘personal digital assistant’) device – the Newton MessagePad 100. The MessagePad was also controlled with a stylus and featured handwriting recognition software.

In 1996 Palm Computing released its own touchscreen PDA – the Pilot. Like the devices that preceded it, the Palm Pilot made use of a stylus. Palm’s device was more successful than its predecessors, partly because its handwriting recognition software was much better.

In 1999 Wayne Westerman, a  graduate student at the University of Delaware, published his dissertation Hand Tracking, Finger Identification, and Chordic Manipulation on a Multi-Touch Surface. The paper investigated the technology behind what we now call multi-touch capacitive technology, a staple feature of modern touchscreen devices.

Westerman and his supervisor John Elias went on to form FingerWorks, a company which developed a line of multi-touch gesture-based devices. These included a gesture-based keyboard called the TouchStream, which was useful for people with disabilities, and the iGesture Pad, which enabled users to control a screen using one-hand gesturing.

FingerWorks was acquired by Apple in 2005. Many people attribute Apple technologies like the iPhone’s touchscreen and the multi-touch Trackpad to this acquisition.

The 2000s and beyond: touch takes over

Touchscreen technology really started to take off at the beginning of the new millennium as developers explored ways of integrating the technology into daily life.

In 2001 a team comprising researchers from General Motors and Alias|Wavefront launched the PortfolioWall. The large format gesture-based touchscreen was aimed at designers and 3D animators and was modelled on the boards design studios use to track projects.

In 2002 Sony introduced SmartSkin, a flat input surface that recognised multiple touch points and hand positions simultaneously. The technology used capacitive sensing and a mesh-shaped antenna to calculate the distance between the user’s hand and the surface. It was pioneering in that it used sensors integrated in the touch surface, rather than relying on camera-based gesture recognition. The project aimed to turn everyday surfaces, like walls or tables, into interactive computer interfaces.

In 2004 Microsoft Research employee Andrew D Wilson developed the TouchLight, a gesture-based imaging touchscreen with a 3D display. It transformed a sheet of acrylic plastic into an interactive surface using a rear projection display. It could sense multiple touches simultaneously, and its 3D capabilities meant it could be used as a makeshift mirror.

In 2006 Jeff Han introduced an intuitive, interface-free, touch-driven computer screen. It enabled users to manipulate photos on a giant light box using only their fingertips. Han’s invention used frustrated total internal reflection (FTIR), a process used for biometric fingerprint imaging. Han later sold his company to Microsoft with the aim of making the technology more accessible.

In 2007 Apple released the iPhone, causing perhaps the biggest shake-up yet in touchscreen technology. The iPhone’s innovative user interface was completely touch-based. This, coupled with Apple’s App Store, transformed the way people engage with technology and stimulated huge advancements in touchscreen technology.

The same year, Microsoft unveiled the Surface, a high-end tabletop graphical touchscreen. It was envisioned as an interactive work surface that would allow colleagues to manipulate objects collaboratively.

Apple launched the iPad, its flagship tablet, in 2010. This heralded the release of a flurry of tablets from competing tech giants including Samsung, Microsoft, Google and Amazon.

The history of touchscreen technology – where are we now?

Today, tablets and touchscreen smartphones are as commonplace as watches and newspapers. In fact, they’re replacing them. Almost anything can now be turned into a touchscreen – even human skin.

If the last few years are anything to go by, touchscreen technology will soon outstrip any of our wildest science-based fantasies – we can’t wait to see what comes next!