Thanks to popular consumer electronics like the Apple iPhone and Nintendo DS, touchscreens have experienced a resurgence sparking innovation and advances in technology. In 2007 Apple launched the iPhone, driving demand for touchscreens in other consumer electronics. Since then, the technology hasn’t shown any signs of slowing, and software engineers continue to push for the most user-friendly interfaces. Quickly our fingers are becoming the most powerful tools for consumer electronic use.

Phones are increasingly integrating touchscreens, and every major U.S. carrier offers a touchscreen device. Tablet computers like the Apple iPad will only become more popular in the next few years. Remotes, cameras, e-readers, and car navigation units all feature touchscreens as well. Meanwhile, your phone buttons, keyboard, mouse, and other electronics are increasingly becoming outdated technology.

But many upcoming advances may make touchscreens even easier to use, and thus even more common in devices you use every day. Soon high-quality touchscreen interfaces will make their way into PCs, tablets, phones, cameras, and other devices.

Tactile Feedback

Perhaps the biggest detriment to touchscreens in the past was that users had to constantly look at what they were pushing to be accurate. This is much of the reason many people will prefer a regular keyboard over a touchscreen. The grooves of the keyboard allow the user to feel where each key is without taking a glance down. However, this is no longer the case.

Now touchscreen products can provide tactile feedback, and soon you won’t have to rely on visual cues from your phone or computer. For example, as you glide over the screen, some buttons may feel smooth while others offer a rough sensation.

Toshiba and Senseg have created a technology that uses electrical currents to simulate sensations of touch. This form of tactile feedback can be enabled on the front and back of phones so the sensations reach the fingertips and the palm. Similar to this technology is the TeslaTouch, developed by Disney Research. The TeslaTouch uses electrovibration to produce varying levels of friction against the finger to provide rich and immediate physical feedback. Users can determine various sizes of files when dragging them across the screen by the amount of friction the user receives.

This technology will be able to differentiate touches and change the overall user experience. Soon, tactile feedback on touchscreens will be able to differentiate textures and simulate actual computer or phone keyboards to show the difference from one key to another. Tactile feedback will have a major benefit for touchscreens on dashboards and consoles inside automobiles. Users will be able to provide input on touchscreens in the car without taking their eyes off the road.

Sensitive To Pressure

Some touchscreens offer pressure-sensitive technology now. However, they aren’t very accurate due to the fact that they measure pressure by surface area (i.e., as you push hard, more of your finger covers the screen). But this is not a true indication of pressure, something that could be on the horizon in touchscreens. Using force-sensing resistors and piezoelectric actuators behind an LCD touchscreen, companies like Sony are bringing this closer to reality.

Using different amounts of pressure to manipulate the screen not only would require fewer buttons, it also would provide increased control on every screen. On a computer or e-reader, for example, this technology would allow a user to scroll down a page faster by pushing a little harder. On a music player, users could browse through songs faster or slower depending on pressure.

Hover Detection

Perhaps with an extension of the pressure-sensitive LCD, eventually users may not even have to make contact with a touchscreen. Mitsubishi and Cypress are among the brands that have unveiled “hover detection” demonstrations. These screens would react when the panel is touched as well as gauge how near or far away a finger is from the surface. This so called “mouse-over” function will make touchscreen technology seem almost magical.

It would also increase usability. Certainly there would be a time and place for this function, as users wouldn’t want it reacting simply because they happen to be near the screen. But much like a mouse arrow hovering over an icon, holding a finger over a link could open up a pop-up or small preview of that page. If users want to enter that link, then they could simply move their finger down slightly and press the screen.

Infrared

Microsoft has championed touchscreen technology by using infrared light detection. The company has applied for a patent for “light induced shape memory” for its product, the Surface. The technology uses the varying wavelengths to change the topography layer, enabling it to expand, contract, or feel rough or smooth. The surface provides a rich touch and visual experience in HD from start to finish.

Dual Screen

Products with touchscreen capabilities also often offer the technology on dual screens. The Acer Iconia is a small netbook that offers a full touchscreen experience where Web pages can flow from one screen to another. It also uses gesture memory to track movements to open Web sites or apps when it recognizes the movement. The Iconia can run two separate apps or act as a screen and keyboard, all on touchscreen technology.

This dual touchscreen technology is also being seen in mobile devices like the Kyocera Echo, which has the versatility to run as a tablet, two separate screens, or two complimenting screens. The phone, available through Sprint, can run different apps simultaneously or act as a screen and virtual keyboard.

So What’s Next?

The technology is certainly being developed, so it’s only a matter of time before touchscreens make their way into more everyday products and activities. With the increased functionality of these new advances, touchscreens can improve the quality of many common products. The classic chalkboard has also been replaced by projectors in most schools and offices. Next are smart whiteboards that pull up slides and other saved projects at the swipe of a finger.

ATMs are a common touchscreen example that will soon be transferred to other public places. Kiosks or information centers in the mall will help customers get to where they are going quicker than the usual billboard that requires a long scan to find “E-7” on a map. In Japan, touchscreen vending machines are already in use. They can even come with cameras that recognize gender and age to recommend beverage selections. It also stores your image and purchase history for your next visit.

Our mobile devices may have been among the first to utilize the functionality of a touchscreen, but they certainly won’t be the last. Technology is advancing every day, and with it, incredible power at your fingertips.