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Posted on Apr 21, 2012

Capacitive Touchscreens – The Innovation that Unleashed the True Potential of Smartphones

Capacitive Touchscreens – The Innovation that Unleashed the True Potential of Smartphones

Gorilla Glass

Gorilla Glass

             The paper analyzes all aspects of this innovation, starting with a brief history, defining the innovation and its types and sources, and then going further in discussing its growth and diffusion, timing of entry, intellectual property rights, and the overall added value to consumers.

             Like several other technologies, many researchers claim the creation of capacitive touchscreens in different times and different consequences, but the first demonstration of the Touch Sensitive Organ was witnessed in 1954 by Dr. Hugh Le Caine who worked on it for two years at his home studio before bringing the prototype organ to the National Research Council lab in 1954 for substantial development.
The concept started to dissolve more into screens and monitors rather than other appliances, but its means was still ambiguous as to where would its functionality be optimal for the time. Yet, the first capacitive touchscreen was invented by E. A. Johnson at the Royal Radar Establishment in the United Kingdom around 1965 – 1967 for air traffic control purposes. With time, researchers found more creative ways to exploit this technology in various industries, especially during the 70s. In 1973, Dr Sam Hurst created the first modern touch screen, which was patented as a touch screen incorporating a transparent surface. It was under his company “Elographics” that Dr Hurst invented and patented the resistive touch screen technology in 1977.
The capacitive technology didn’t solidify before MicroTouch (later acquired by 3M) launched the first projected capacitive touch sensor. However, the increasing demand for touch screen smart phones defined the last decade. In 2007, Apple introduced the most successful smartphone in the world, the iPhone, based on nothing but touch screen technology.

 

             To define it, a capacitive touch screen is a new product that revolutionized the way people interact with devices. It is a much-needed improvement of its predecessor (Resistive Touchscreens) which failed to grasp the satisfaction of the masses. Limitations such as low-light output, diffused resolution images, lag of finger responsiveness to actions such as swiping and pinching, and general user impracticalities were solved by capacitive touch screens. The new technology underlying this innovation relies on electrodes to react with conductive properties of certain objects, making it easier to implement in various fields of communication, astronomy, medicine, and beyond.

 

             Capacitive touch screens can be categorized under several types of innovations since the impact on the smartphone industry was never anticipated. It was implemented on a separate technological concept that made mobile phones intuitive and user-friendly to all demographics. This wide effect showed a radical improvement in the field of touch screens and proliferated the manufacturing of tablets, mobile phones, interactive boards, tables, and further. The depth of this effect is considered radical, according to Abernathy and Clark, since it confined the manufacture of resistive touch screens to a niche in the lower segment of the market.
             The essence of an architectural innovation is the reconfiguration of an established system to link together existing components in a new way. It is triggered by the change from resistive to capacitive touch screen that created new interactions and new linkages with other components in mobile phones, particularly the user interface. Yet it is necessary to point out that the core design concept of mobile phones and the research knowledge behind it remains the same and is built upon it. The capacitive touch screen made it the basic platform for any mobile phone to be released into the market, as the success of the iPhone clearly showed the potential of this new technology and became the basic technical standard that defined future mobile devices.

             The transition from resistive to capacitive technologies changed the way consumers, manufacturers and everyone in between behave with mobile phones. With a gentle gesture, or multiple gestures, the device carrying a capacitive touch screen would create a much-needed leap for more user-friendly interfaces, bright displays, and extreme durability with a rated life of over 1 million uses.  Therefore, today’s devices are an integration of touch screens with intuitive touch user interfaces. That was the reason people would go up to iPhone users “just to touch it”. Apple managed to maximize its touchscreen potential with its daring user interface.

             The role of capacitive touch screens is a technology that was developed after the limitations of resistive screens withheld the advancement of technology. The capacitive touchscreen fits as a regular innovation since it created a snowball effect on the majority of mobile phone manufacturers and consumers. Once the established, existing technology was affordable, markets and the mobile phone industry switched to capacitive touchscreens to meet growing demand.

             Knowing the capacitive touchscreens and resistive touchscreens are different by application and use, yet the former evolved from the latter by adopting its basic concept of having several layers with a “mediator” in between to sense a human output and complete the circuit. Thus it is safe to say the capacitive touch screens refine and extend the then established design of mobile phones and capitalized on the success and research done on resistive touch screens to identify current needs and future trends, showing the effect of an incremental innovation in the touchscreen technology(

             In addition, based on Christensen’s disruptive innovation model, the trajectory that follows a new technology curve renders the old technology serving the low-end part of the market. The sustaining technology does not reset critical success factors, yet it satisfies a growing need of the main-stream market. As performance increases in the market when it comes to screen functionality and wide use of smartphones, consumers, especially early adopters, consumers will ultimately absorb the new technology while the least demanding market will reside on the existing technology, which is the resistive technology. Research proving this point shows that capacitive touchscreens have gone mainstream while resistive touchscreens are currently manufactured for low-end markets, notable India and China.

             The source of capacitive touch screens springs up from a technology push and a market pull, making it a high conductor of investment and research as well as high rates of adoption. Capacitive touch screens emerged from the proliferation of smartphone usage by time. The potential was seen by scientists and specialists from its early times and thus dedicated considerable research and funding to advance the technology. Essentially, the previous technology proved to have limited capacity and the constant advancement of technology required more than what resistive touchscreens offered. Still, despite the growth of capacitive touchscreens, advancements were made on aspects such as multi-touch gestures and greater efficiencies. The stack of researches and progresses pushed capacitive touchscreens further in terms of potential and showed that more can be done today than yesterday.

             Since the capacitive touch screen was a complex technology that provided more accuracy and more features that improved the quality of life, market pull was an immediate response, especially in 2007 when the iPhone was released. Having six gestures and multi-touch input that allows up to 15 touches at a time, the device was revolutionary for users since it allowed an amazingly simple interface to be easily used by consumers and exploited by developers. This wouldn’t be possible with other types of touchscreens, and here lies the true success of the capacitive touch screen.

             It is fortunate to state that open innovation was the key to advance capacitive touchscreens into the smartphone industry. The advancement of this technology sprouted from different sources, often followed by corporate ventures (e.g. 3M acquiring Microtouch (2000) after launching first capacitive touch panel in 1995) or several alliances that collaborated to the progress of this touchscreen. In the technology’s timeline, the last 25 years until 2007 were solely research-based with a few experimental products launched into market to test customer feedback. Mergers, acquisitions, and alliance networks all formed and proliferated in different design and functional aspects of capacitive touchscreens to eventually find effective and efficient use of the technology. After 2007, capacitive touchscreens were “the next big thing” and became a new standard in the field of touch tabletops (Microsoft Surface) to HP’s All-in-one multitouch PCs.

             The technology behind the capacitive touchscreen varied in terms of rate of advancement along the years. Despite being invented back in 80s, due to the lack of knowledge, its technology S-curve started at a relatively slow pace.  After creating the proper industry base and the market was squeezing functionality out of smartphones, capacitive touchscreens became the dominant innovation. The higher the technology S-curve got, the better the performance was reported.
The development of this innovation initially grew from a single touch interface, to self-capacitance (two fingers), and eventually to multi-finger capabilities. This would be greatly credited to the extensive research in finding the optimal touch screen conductor patterns. For example, the 1st generation of the iPhone’s pattern consisted of 50-micron rows and columns, extensive processing power was required to generate an accurate coordinate. The need to optimize this technology resulted in experimenting with other patterns, ranging from interlocking diamond rows and columns to more customized and complex patterns, dyeing with chemicals for stronger durability, and even creating innumerable variations on the basic design structure and improving the processes of creating it.
Thus, the standards to make a capacitive touch screen are far from being present on an industrial scale. R&D labs constantly tinker with current screens for better performance, greater efficiency, and lower costs. It is the market need that pushes the new technology in, and the old one out.

             The improved touch screen technology created easier product diffusion into the hands of end-users, and even created new markets targeted at the mobile gaming industry. The rate of diffusion was modest at first, but smartphones were soon cannibalizing sales of PDAs and showing promising results. It wasn’t until the introduction of the first smartphone with a capacitive touchscreen in 2006 (LG Prada) that the tipping point was witnessed, making it a viral topic and a new standard in the mobile industry. The boom was later followed by Apple releasing the iPhone (2007) and Android releasing the G1 (2007) that  truly united the benefits of capacitive touchscreens with custom-built UI.

             When it comes to timing of entry, it is unclear who the focal innovator is in this case. Capacitive touchscreens underwent consecutive advancements for the last 25 years under the funding and research of a multitude of independent companies aiming at improving the same technology. That is why the capacitive touchscreen wasn’t “owned” per se by any firm after the patent, yet it was for everyone’s advantage to share the technology and create sub-innovations on it, such as multiple touches, greater efficiency, and so forth.

             The fate of capacitive touchscreens was greatly shaped by the degree of protection this innovation has enjoyed. Throughout the 25 years of research, the technology was greatly pushed forward and every successful addition to the technology was heavily protected by various forms of intellectual property rights and continues to form a barrier against companies lacking the correct patent portfolio. It became an industry standard when several patents emerged showing great improvement in performance (Method for manufacturing one-layer type capacitive touch screen, or adding more functionality (Multipoint Touchscreen, Patent No. 7,663,607). Patents directly related to capacitive touchscreens and to smartphones in particular are highly numerous, starting from the initial invention filed as a “Touch sensitive control device” dating back to October 29, 1985 (Patent No. 4,550,221), and branching out into several such as Gestures for Touch Sensitive Input Devices (Patent No. 20060026521) and Capacitive Sensing Pattern (Patent No. 7202859).
Apple has been especially interested in gaining protection on this technology by attempting to trademark the term “Multi-Touch”, but it failed claiming that the term is too generic.(14) Despite that, Apple managed to acquire the patent for capacitive touchscreens (Patent No. 7,966,578) described as “Portable multifunction device, method, and graphical user interface for translating displayed content” which will create turbulent lawsuits and big troubles to rivals such as Google and Nokia.

             The conflict of bringing value to consumers was resolved when the comparison was made between the then-dominant design (resistive touchscreen) and the emerging technology (capacitive touchscreen). After various advancements in different fields, capacitive touchscreens were able to prove their dominance by being cost-efficient on a massive scale and much more effective that the existing technology. The following proposition compares the value added to consumers when switching from resistive to capacitive touchscreens:

Resistive touchscreen Capacitive touchscreen
Visibility in sunlight Typically poor; the extra layer reflects too much ambient light. Typically very good.
Touch Sensitivity Pressure is needed to make the contact within the screen’s layers, can be affected with fingers. Even the slightest contact of the finger with the screen’s glass is enough to activate the capacitive sensing system.
Accuracy Accurate to at least display pixel resolution. Useful for handwriting recognition and interfaces with smaller control elements. Accurate to within a few pixels, in theory, but effectively limited by the physical size of the fingertips.
Cost Cheap to use in a phone design. More expensive than resistive screens by around 10% to 50%. On a flagship device, the extra build cost isn’t that important.
Possibility for multi-touch None possible without re-engineering the whole screen Up to 15 touches at the same time
Robustness The very nature of resistive screens means that their top layer is soft enough to press down and indent. This makes the screen vulnerable to scratches and other minor damage. Glass can be used as the outer layer. Although not invulnerable, glass is more resistant to casual scratches and blemishes.

 

             The value chain is created by providing the necessary material to create the highest quality capacitive touchscreens. With 10 different models existing in the market due to intellectual property rights, it is believed that the firm with the least components and most cost-efficient touch screens will survive the market.

For that, the role of complementors is diminishing in the pre-retail section of the value chain. The basic elements are being reduced even further, but the added value of complementors is proliferating in the retail sector in which they are focusing on additional services such as protective sheets, custom designs, chemical fluids, etc.

             Moving towards the future, consumers will continue to see the growth of the touch screen industry, due to extensive engineering advancements in user interfaces. The ability to physically touch a screen is easier than searching for a specific key in a sea of buttons. Society, for these reasons, has found touch screens to be the future of many devices. The social norm of today includes walking down the street surfing the web on an iPhone or sifting through music on an iPod Touch. No additional buttons are necessary, just the small, portable device in one’s pocket until needed. Society will continue to see the development of touch screen technology as human-device interaction is perfected.

 

Sources:

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multi-touch#History
  2. http://www.touchuserinterface.com/2010/02/touch-technology-history.html
  3. www.knowyourmobile.com/features/392510/touchscreen_lowdown_capacitive_vs_resistive.html
  4. http://www.mobileburn.com/definition.jsp?term=capacitive+touchscreen
  5. Architectural Innovation: The Reconfiguration of Existing Product Technologies and the Failure of Established Firms”, Henderson, Rebecca M.; Clark, Kim B., Administrative Science Quarterly; March 1990; 35, 1, ABI/INFORM Global
  6. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/28182280/ns/technology_and_science-tech_and_gadgets/t/not-all-touchscreen-phones-are-created-equal/#.TsUawsNCqU8
  7. TOUCH SCREENS: A PRESSING TECHNOLOGY” by Timothy Hoye and Joseph Kozak, at the Tenth Annual Freshman Conference, University of Pittsburgh, April 10, 2010,
  8. http://www.chinajiaho.com/32-inch-touch-screen-dual-sim-cards-google-android-22-os-smart-mobile-phone-with-tv_p2564.html
  9. http://www.touchuserinterface.com/2008/09/touch-screen-is-must-on-next-mobile.html

10. http://www.dealipedia.com/deal_view_acquisition.php?r=3714

11. “Project Capacitive Touch Screens” by Gary L. Barrett and Ryomei Omote, “Informational Display Magazine”, Document Number 6500468

12. http://www.google.com/patents?id=G6p_AAAAEBAJ&dq=7202859

13. http://www.freshpatents.com/-dt20111027ptan20110262631.php

14. http://www.macrumors.com/2011/09/26/apple-denied-trademark-for-multi-touch/

15. http://gizmodo.com/5814430/apple-now-owns-the-patent-on-your-smartphones-touchscreen

16. http://www.allaboutsymbian.com/features/item/Resistive_vs_Capacitive_the_invisible_tech_war_in_which_both_opponents_can_win.php

 

2 Comments

  1. I have been checking out a few of your posts and it’s pretty nice stuff. I will make sure to bookmark your website.

    • I’m glad you like the content. More to come 🙂

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