Touching the Future – Touch Screen Interfaces and Mobile Phones

The touch screen interface is one that has been a long time developing. The first touch interfaces used in computers were Wacom graphics tablets, which were developed by a Japanese company to support writing Japanese ideograms as a text input method. Wacom’s means to measure both the pressure area and direction of a touching pen or stylus has led to the innovative handsets and touchscreens we have today.

As a smart phone interface, touch screens started out with the original Apple Newton, but unfortunately it didn’t take off – the form factor was too large to be convenient, and battery technology made them heavy. It was greatly improved by the Palm Pilot, which enjoyed immense popularity in the late 1990s, becoming more powerful but requiring less battery power to operate. Their modern day descendant the Palm Treo has since foregone the touch screen in favour of a thumb-driven keyboard.

Touch screen phones started taking off again in the first half of 2006 – nearly a year and a half before the iPhone made it “the must have” feature on any mobile phone. The phones got some dedicated followers, but the overall prospect of using the touch screen for carrying out any significant data work was daunting and frustrating – mostly because the software wasn’t up to it, and the menus weren’t built around the user experience.

With the iPhone, we saw the first example of someone creating a touch interface right – the touch screen on an iPhone or iPod touch is amazingly sensitive to both multiple points of contact and to noting the direction of travel. It’s this software/hardware integration that makes the iPhone such an elegant piece of equipment, with the ability to pinch to zoom out, stretch to zoom in, and a fingertip flick to roll through your contacts or playlist.

What’s next? Well, probably two things taken from gaming consoles – sensitivity to direction of motion for the unit as a whole (think of the Nintendo Wii), and something called haptics. Haptics is all about the study of touch. Integrating haptic technology within a touch screen could enable phones and other devices to allow us to experience a whole new set of senses.

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