The Touching History of Touchscreen Tech

By  Christine Erickson  on November 9, 2012
Touchscreen technology is no longer a Bourne Identity kind of future -- it's nearly a staple feature in mobile devices. The late 2000s often attribute Apple as responsible for the touchscreen, after shaking the mobile industry with the iPhone. The company did not invent the touchscreen, but innovated it. The technology became more useful and commercially available to a widespread audience. The touchscreen, a display that's sensitive to human touch or a stylus, has been around for nearly half a century. It's used on ATM machines, GPS systems, cash registers, medical monitors, game consoles, computers, phones and continues to appear in newer technologies. E.A. Johnson is believed to be the first to develop the touchscreen in 1965. But the tablet, which was patented in 1969, could only read one touch at a time, and it was used for air traffic control until about 1995. Bent Stumpe and Frank Beck, two engineers at CERN, developed a transparent, capacitive touch screen in the early 1970s. This kind of screen relies on having an object pressing particularly hard against its surface, and will only react to certain objects like a stylus. It was manufactured by CERN and utilized in 1973. Samuel G. Hurst founded the resistive touchscreen in the 1971. Hurst's sensor, called the "Elograph," was named after his company Elographics, but it was not mass-produced and sold until the early 1980s. Unlike a capacitive screen, the resistive design is made of several layers, and responds to touch of a finger or stylus. The outer layer flexes under any touch, and is pushed back onto a layer behind it. This completes a circuit, telling the device which part of the screen is being pressed. Multi-touch technology began in 1982, when the University of Toronto developed a tablet that could read multiple points of contact. Bell Labs developed a touchscreen that could change images with more than one hand in 1984. Around the same time, Myron Krueger developed an optical system that tracks hand movements. This was the beginning for the gestures we've adapted to so easily today. A year later, the University of Toronto and Bill Buxton, a computer scientist and pioneer of human-computer interaction, innovated the multi-touch tablet using capacitive technology. In the 1990s, computer scientist Andrew Sears conducted an academic study on human-computer interaction. The review described single-touch gestures, such as rotating knobs, swiping to activate -- and multi-touch gestures like connecting objects and tapping to select. Over the next few decades, touchscreen technology continued innovating itself. Screens became more receptive to touch and gestures, and more innovative moments were focused on the devices.

How Did We Get to the iPhone?

The HP-150 was one of the earliest commercialized touchscreen computers, made in 1983. The feature consisted of a series of vertical and horizontal infrared light beams that crossed just in front of the screen. Touching the screen would break the infrared and place the cursor at the desired location. The computer originally sold for $2,795. The Atari 520ST was the first commercially-available POS system, which is used by restaurants still today. In 1986, this 16-bit color computer software was created by Gene Mosher under ViewTouch copyright. Apple created in 1987 the ADP, or Apple desktop bus, which was an early version of the USB cable. For the first time, multiple devices -- like the mouse or keyboard -- could be plugged in at the same time. This multiple input technology would later be used in today's smartphones and tablets.
SEE ALSO: Is This The Future of Touchscreen Tech? New Video Will Blow Your Mind
The IBM Simon was the first phone with a touchscreen in 1992 -- it’s also referred as the first “smartphone,” though the term was not yet coined. A few competitors came out in the early '90s, but most mobile devices with touchscreens were more like PDAs. FingerWorks, a gesture recognition company, produced a line of multi-touch products in 1998, including the iGesture Pad and TouchStream keyboard. The company was acquired by Apple in 2005. In 2007, Apple released the most innovated touchscreen technology anyone had yet seen. The iPhone interface is completely touch-based, including the notorious virtual keyboard. Apple's line of iPhones led to other devices like the iPod Touch and the iPad. Even at the beginning of the iPhone's history, contenders challenged the idea that Apple was the first. A year before the iPhone was revealed, the LG PRADA boasted the first capacitive touchscreen. Samsung and Nokia also had touch-based mobile phones in the works but were not released. Nokia chose not to, due to risk of cost. Samsung, to this day, is still battling with Apple over who truly was "first." This boom in the touchscreen market spread past phones and onto other devices, like gaming consoles or tablets. The late 2000s saw a race among tech competitors to make the best tablet. Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Samsung, Google and other giants have all made several devices with touchscreen technology. Some touchscreens are even flexible now. Today, nearly anything can be turned into an interactive surface. There are touch-based phones, computers, television, gaming consoles -- even desks, among other products. Children exposed to touchscreen technology are becoming so adapted to it, they might struggle developing gestures in real life. What do you think the future holds for touchscreen technology? Image courtesy of Flickr, Sean MacEntee, Yutaka Tsutano
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