The Wall Street Journal is reporting that within 18 months HP plans to have multiple touchscreen products, including a laptop, “that use the same type of finger-tapping interface popularized by Apple Inc.’s iPhone.” If HP does use the same type of touch screen as that of the iPhone, it will represent a significant breakthrough for larger touch screens as it will help drive down costs and create a market for more applications.
The iPhone has brought touch to the masses, but HP and Microsoft have been pushing the technology for years. Microsoft’s Bill Gates showed off his first tablet in 2000, and in the last two years offered the world the futuristic Surface Table and the Touch Wall. And HP launched its second generation of touch-based personal computers earlier this summer. But the underlying touch technology for smaller devices is very different from that of big ones.
Behind the iPhone, Samsung Instinct, LG Secret and several other mobile phones with touch screens lie capacitive sensors. These are semiconductors that require the human body to make them work. For users, it means that fingernails aren’t enough to dial a number and that the resulting screens are clearer instead of filmy. But the capacitive screens used in phones would be prohibitively expensive if they were put in larger devices. They could also could cause usability problem, especially when used for tabletops, where an errant palm could easily flick photos out of sight or drag windows to the wrong locale.
That’s why HP’s personal computer and Microsoft Surface Table and Touch Wall rely on cameras built into the four corners of the monitors to make their touch screens react. These screens generally use LEDs to shine light across the surface areas. When a finger interrupts that light pattern, the cameras sense where the finger (or fingers) are based upon how the light scatters and react accordingly, all without the need for either a network of chips underneath the screen or pressure-sensitive films.
But between the large-screen touch offerings and the existing capacitive screens on cell phones, notebooks and tablets have languished, with most using resistive screens, which measure touch via pressure applied using a stylus or fingertip. Many tablet and laptop makers have capacitive screens in their product road maps, but in order to really drive adoption, they’ll need to incorporate applications that take advantage of touch.
Last month, Dell showed off the first multi-touch, capacitive touch screen for its 12.1-inch Latitude XT tablet. The Dell machine’s touch screen is provided by N-Trig, a startup with offices in Israel and Austin, Texas. On Monday, N-Trig released a software development kit that will allow programmers to build multi-touch software that can “read” gestures and touch to control applications. HP has its own internal software group that builds touch applications as well. It may only take a couple of years before our fingers will be flying — not over keys, but over screens.
image of first HP touch screen computer circa 1983 courtesy of HP