HMI and Touchscreen Technology

CRT with Touchscreen

During the process of specifying HMI hardware for my current project some fairly deep discussions were had concerning touchscreen technology. One part of the specification stated “No SAW or APR touchscreens”. Why would you want to avoid these in an application? I had seen these acronyms before but never really knew the details of the technology, so I figured that might be a question others might have also.

From the Primer:
3.2.3 Touchscreens
A touchscreen is an electronic visual display that can detect the presence and location of a touch within the display area. The term generally refers to touching the display of the device with a finger or hand. Touchscreens can also sense other passive objects, such as a stylus. It enables one to interact directly with what is displayed, rather than indirectly with a pointer controlled by a mouse, trackball or touchpad. Following are some of the different types of touchscreen technologies available.
3.2.3.1 Resistive
A resistive touchscreen panel is composed of several layers, the most important of which are two thin, electrically conductive layers separated by a narrow gap. When an object, such as a finger, presses down on a point on the panel’s outer surface the two metallic layers become connected at that point: the panel then behaves as a pair of voltage dividers with connected outputs. This causes a change in the electrical current, which is registered as a touch event and sent to the controller for processing. The cover sheet consists of a hard outer surface with a coated inner side. When the outer layer is touched it causes the conductive layers to touch creating a signal that the analog controller can interpret and determine what the user wants to be done. Resistive touch is used in restaurants, factories and hospitals due to its high resistance to liquids and contaminants. A major benefit of resistive touch technology is it is extremely cost-effective. One disadvantage of resistive technology is its vulnerability of being damaged by sharp objects.
3.2.3.2 Surface Acoustic Wave (SAW)
Surface acoustic wave (SAW) technology uses ultrasonic waves that pass over the touchscreen panel. When the panel is touched, a portion of the wave is absorbed. This change in the ultrasonic waves registers the position of the touch event and sends this information to the controller for processing. Surface wave touchscreen panels can be damaged by outside elements. Contaminants on the surface can also interfere with the functionality of the touchscreen.
3.2.3.3 Capacitive
A capacitive touchscreen panel consists of an insulator such as glass, coated with a transparent conductor such as indium tin oxide (ITO).As the human body is also an electrical conductor, touching the surface of the screen results in a distortion of the screen’s electrostatic field, measurable as a change in capacitance. Different technologies may be used to determine the location of the touch. The location is then sent to the controller for processing. Unlike a resistive touchscreen, one cannot use a capacitive touchscreen through most types of electrically insulating material, such as gloves; one requires a special capacitive stylus, or a special-application glove with finger tips that generate static electricity. This disadvantage especially affects usability in consumer electronics, such as touch tablet PCs and capacitive smartphones in cold weather.
In surface capacitance technology, only one side of the insulator is coated with a conductive layer. A small voltage is applied to the layer, resulting in a uniform electrostatic field. When a conductor, such as a human finger, touches the uncoated surface, a capacitor is dynamically formed. The sensor’s controller can determine the location of the touch indirectly from the change in the capacitance as measured from the four corners of the panel. As it has no moving parts, it is moderately durable but has limited resolution, is prone to false signals from parasitic capacitive coupling, and needs calibration during manufacture. It is therefore most often used in simple applications such as industrial controls and kiosks.
Projected Capacitive Touch (PCT) technology is a capacitive technology which permits more accurate and flexible operation, by etching the conductive layer. An X-Y grid is formed either by etching a single layer to form a grid pattern of electrodes, or by etching two separate, perpendicular layers of conductive material with parallel lines or tracks to form the grid (comparable to the pixel grid found in many LCD displays). The greater resolution of PCT allows operation without direct contact, such that the conducting layers can be coated with further protective insulating layers, and operate even under screen protectors, or behind weather and vandal-proof glass. Due to the top layer of a PCT being glass, PCT is a more robust solution versus resistive touch technology.
In mutual capacitive touchscreens, there is a capacitor at every intersection of each row and each column. A 16-by-14 array, for example, would have 224 independent capacitors. A voltage is applied to the rows or columns. Bringing a finger or conductive stylus close to the surface of the sensor changes the local electrostatic field which reduces the mutual capacitance. The capacitance change at every individual point on the grid can be measured to accurately determine the touch location by measuring the voltage in the other axis. Mutual capacitance allows multi-touch operation where multiple fingers, palms or styli can be accurately tracked at the same time. Self-capacitance sensors can have the same X-Y grid as mutual capacitance sensors, but the columns and rows operate independently. With self-capacitance, the capacitive load of a finger is measured on each column or row electrode by a current meter. This method produces a stronger signal than mutual capacitance, but it is unable to resolve accurately more than one finger.
3.2.3.4 Infrared
An infrared touchscreen uses an array of X-Y infrared LED and photodetector pairs around the edges of the screen to detect a disruption in the pattern of LED beams. These LED beams cross each other in vertical and horizontal patterns. This helps the sensors pick up the exact location of the touch. A major benefit of such a system is that it can detect essentially any input including a finger, gloved finger, stylus or pen. It is generally used in outdoor applications and point of sale systems which can’t rely on a conductor (such as a bare finger) to activate the touchscreen. Unlike capacitive touchscreens, infrared touchscreens do not require any patterning on the glass which increases durability and optical clarity of the overall system.
3.2.3.5 Optical Imaging
This is a relatively modern development in touchscreen technology, in which two or more image sensors are placed around the edges (mostly the corners) of the screen. Infrared back lights are placed in the camera’s field of view on the other side of the screen. A touch shows up as a shadow and each pair of cameras can then be pinpointed to locate the touch or even measure the size of the touching object. This technology is growing in popularity, due to its scalability, versatility, and affordability, especially for larger units.
3.2.3.6 Dispersive Signal Technology
Introduced in 2002 by 3M, this system uses sensors to detect the Piezoelectricity in the glass that occurs due to a touch. Complex algorithms then interpret this information and provide the actual location of the touch. The technology claims to be unaffected by dust and other outside elements, including scratches. Since there is no need for additional elements on screen, it also claims to provide excellent optical clarity. Also, since mechanical vibrations are used to detect a touch event, any object can be used to generate these events, including fingers and stylus. A downside is that after the initial touch the system cannot detect a motionless finger.
3.2.3.7 Acoustic Pulse Recognition (APR)
In this system, introduced by Tyco International’s Elo division in 2006, the key to the invention is that a touch at each position on the glass generates a unique sound. Four tiny transducers attached to the edges of the touchscreen glass pick up the sound of the touch. The sound is then digitized by the controller and compared to a list of prerecorded sounds for every position on the glass. The cursor position is instantly updated to the touch location. APR is designed to ignore extraneous and ambient sounds, as they do not match a stored sound profile. APR differs from other attempts to recognize the position of touch with transducers or microphones, as it uses a simple table lookup method rather than requiring powerful and expensive signal processing hardware to attempt to calculate the touch location without any references. The touchscreen itself is made of ordinary glass, giving it good durability and optical clarity. It is usually able to function with scratches and dust on the screen with good accuracy. The technology is also well suited to displays that are physically larger. As with the Dispersive Signal Technology system, after the initial touch, a motionless finger cannot be detected. However for the same reason, the touch recognition is not disrupted by any resting objects.

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