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How can a screen sense touch?

A basic understanding
of touch panels

Touch panel technologies are a key theme in current digital devices, including smartphones, slate
devices like the iPad, the screens on the backs of digital cameras, the Nintendo DS, and Windows 7
devices. The term touch panel encompasses various technologies for sensing the touch of a finger
or stylus. In this session, we'll look at basic touch panel sensing methods and introduce the
characteristics and optimal applications of each.

Note: Below is the translation from the Japanese of the ITmedia article "How Can a Screen Sense
Touch? A Basic Understanding of Touch Panels"published September 27, 2010. Copyright 2011
ITmedia Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Touch panels have become a part of daily life
A touch panel is a piece of equipment that lets users
interact with a computer by touching the screen
directly. Incorporating features into the monitor like
sensors that detect touch actions makes it possible to
issue instructions to a computer by having it sense
the position of a finger or stylus. Essentially, it
becomes a device fusing the two functions of display
and input.

It's perhaps not something we think of often, but
touch panels have integrated themselves into every
aspect of our lives. People who enjoy using digital
devices like smartphones interact with touch panels
all the time in everyday lifebut so do others, at
devices like bank ATMs, ticket vending machines in
railway stations, electronic kiosks inside convenience
stores, digital photo printers at mass merchandisers,
library information terminals, photocopiers, and car
navigation systems.

This session discusses touch panel systems
A major factor driving the spread of touch panels is the benefits they offer in the way of intuitive
operation. Since they can be used for input through direct contact with icons and buttons, they're
easy to understand and easily used, even by people unaccustomed to using computers. Touch
panels also contribute to miniaturization and simplification of devices by combining display and input
into a single piece of equipment. Since touch panel buttons are software, not hardware, their
interfaces are easily changed through software.

Primary applications of LCD monitors with touch panels. These devices are used in many
widespread spheres.

While a touch panel requires a wide range of characteristics, including display visibility above all,
along with precision in position sensing, rapid response to input, durability, and installation costs,
their characteristics differ greatly depending on the methods used to sense touch input. Some typical
touch-panel sensing methods are discussed below.

Resistive film touch panels
As of 2010, resistive film represented the most widely used sensing method in the touch panel
market. Touch panels based on this method are called pressure-sensitive or analog-resistive film
touch panels. In addition to standalone LCD monitors, this technology is used in a wide range of
small to mid-sized devices, including smartphones, mobile phones, PDAs, car navigation systems,
and the Nintendo DS.

With this method, the position on screen contacted by a finger, stylus, or other object is detected
using changes in pressure. The monitor features a simple internal structure: a glass screen and a
film screen separated by a narrow gap, each with a transparent electrode film (electrode layer)
attached. Pressing the surface of the screen presses the electrodes in the film and the glass to come
into contact, resulting in the flow of electrical current. The point of contact is identified by detecting
this change in voltage.

The advantages of this system include the low-cost manufacture, thanks to its simple structure. The
system also uses less electricity than other methods, and the resulting configurations are strongly
resistant to dust and water since the surface is covered in film. Since input involves pressure applied
to the film, it can be used for input not just with bare fingers, but even when wearing gloves or using
a stylus. These screens can also be used to input handwritten text.

Drawbacks include lower light transmittance (reduced display quality) due to the film and two
electrode layers; relatively lower durability and shock resistance; and reduced precision of detection
with larger screen sizes. (Precision can be maintained in other waysfor example, splitting the
screen into multiple areas for detection.)

Capacitive touch panels
Capacitive touch panels represent the second most widely used sensing method after resistive film
touch panels. Corresponding to the terms used for the above analog resistive touch panels, these
also are called analog capacitive touch panels. Aside from standalone LCD monitors, these are often
used in the same devices with resistive film touch panels, such as smartphones and mobile phones.

With this method, the point at which the touch occurs is identified using sensors to sense minor
changes in electrical current generated by contact with a finger or changes in electrostatic capacity
(load). Since the sensors react to the static electrical capacity of the human body when a finger
approaches the screen, they also can be operated in a manner similar to moving a pointer within an
area touched on screen.

Two types of touch panels use this method: surface capacitive touch panels and projective
capacitive touch panels. The internal structures differ between the two types.

Surface capacitive touch panels
Surface capacitive touch panels are often used in relatively large panels. Inside these panels, a
transparent electrode film (electrode layer) is placed atop a glass substrate, covered by a protective
cover. Electric voltage is applied to electrodes positioned in the four corners of the glass substrate,
generating a uniform low-voltage electrical field across the entire panel. The coordinates of the
position at which the finger touches the screen are identified by measuring the resulting changes in
electrostatic capacity at the four corners of the panel.

While this type of capacitive touch panel has a simpler structure than a projected capacitive touch
panel and for this reason offers lower cost, it is structurally difficult to detect contact at two or more
points at the same time (multi-touch).

Projected capacitive touch panels
Projected capacitive touch panels are often used for smaller screen sizes than surface capacitive
touch panels. They've attracted significant attention in mobile devices. The iPhone, iPod Touch, and
iPad use this method to achieve high-precision multi-touch functionality and high response speed.

The internal structure of these touch panels consists of a substrate incorporating an IC chip for
processing computations, over which is a layer of numerous transparent electrodes is positioned in
specific patterns. The surface is covered with an insulating glass or plastic cover. When a finger
approaches the surface, electrostatic capacity among multiple electrodes changes simultaneously,
and the position were contact occurs can be identified precisely by measuring the ratios between
these electrical currents.

A unique characteristic of a projected capacitive touch panel is the fact that the large number of
electrodes enables accurate detection of contact at multiple points (multi-touch). However, the
projected capacitive touch panels featuring indium-tin-oxide (ITO) found in smartphones and similar
devices are poorly suited for use in large screens, since increased screen size results in increased
resistance (i.e., slower transmission of electrical current), increasing the amount of error and noise in
detecting the points touched.

Larger touch panels use center-wire projected capacitive touch panels in which very thin electrical
wires are laid out in a grid as a transparent electrode layer. While lower resistance makes center-
wire projected capacitive touch panels highly sensitive, they are less suited to mass production than
ITO etching.

Above, we've summarized the differences between the two types of capacitive touch panels. The
overall characteristics of such panels include the fact that unlike resistive film touch panels, they do
not respond to touch by clothing or standard styli. They feature strong resistance to dust and water
drops and high durability and scratch resistance. In addition, their light transmittance is higher, as
compared to resistive film touch panels.

On the other hand, these touch panels require either a finger or a special stylus. They cannot be
operated while wearing gloves, and they are susceptible to the effects of nearby metal structures.

Surface acoustic wave (SAW) touch panels
Surface acoustic wave (SAW) touch panels were developed mainly to address the drawbacks of low
light transmittance in resistive film touch panelsthat is, to achieve bright touch panels with high
levels of visibility. These are also called surface wave or acoustic wave touch panels. Aside from
standalone LCD monitors, these are widely used in public spaces, in devices like point-of-sale
terminals, ATMs, and electronic kiosks.

These panels detect the screen position where contact occurs with a finger or other object using the
attenuation in ultrasound elastic waves on the surface. The internal structure of these panels is
designed so that multiple piezoelectric transducers arranged in the corners of a glass substrate
transmit ultrasound surface elastic waves as vibrations in the panel surface, which are received by
transducers installed opposite the transmitting ones. When the screen is touched, ultrasound waves
are absorbed and attenuated by the finger or other object. The location is identified by detecting
these changes. Naturally, the user does not feel these vibrations when touching the screen. These
panels offer high ease of use.

The strengths of this type of touch panel include high light transmittance and superior visibility, since
the structure requires no film or transparent electrodes on the screen. Additionally, the surface glass
provides better durability and scratch resistance than a capacitive touch panel. Another advantage is
that even if the surface does somehow become scratched, the panel remains sensitive to touch. (On
a capacitive touch panel, surface scratches can sometimes interrupt signals.) Structurally, this type
of panel ensures high stability and long service life, free of changes over time or deviations in
position.

Weak points include compatibility with only fingers and soft objects (such as gloves) that absorb
ultrasound surface elastic waves. These panels require special-purpose styluses and may react to
substances like water drops or small insects on the panel.

All in all, however, these touch panels offer relatively few drawbacks. Recent developments such as
improvements in manufacturing technology are also improving their cost-performance.

Optical touch panels (infrared optical imaging touch panels)
The category of optical touch panels includes multiple sensing methods. The number of products
employing infrared optical imaging touch panels based on infrared image sensors to sense position
through triangulation has grown in recent years, chiefly among larger panels.

A touch panel in this category features one infrared LED each at the left and right ends of the top of
the panel, along with an image sensor (camera). Retroreflective tape that reflects incident light along
the axis of incidence is affixed along the remaining left, right, and bottom sides. When a finger or
other object touches the screen, the image sensor captures the shadows formed when the infrared
light is blocked. The coordinates of the location of contact are derived by triangulation.


Electromagnetic induction touch panels
While this type differs somewhat from the above touch panels, let's touch on the subject of
electromagnetic induction touch panels. This method is used in devices like LCD graphics tablets,
tablet PCs, and purikura photo sticker booths.

This input method for graphics tablets, which originally did not feature monitors, achieves high-
precision touch panels by combining a sensor with the LCD panel. When the user touches the
screen with a special-purpose stylus that generates a magnetic field, sensors on the panel receive
the electromagnetic energy and use it to sense the position of the pen.

Since a special-purpose stylus is used for input, input using a finger or a general-purpose stylus is
not possible, and the method has limited applications. Still, this has both good and bad points. It
eliminates input errors due to the surrounding environment or unintended screen manipulation.
Since the technology was intended for use in graphics tablets, it offers superior sensor precision
making it possible, for example, to change line width smoothly by precisely sensing the pressure
with which the stylus is pressed against the screen (electrostatic capacity). This design approach
also gives the screen high light transmittance and durability.

Summary of trends in touch-panel sensing methods
The table below summarizes the characteristics of the touch panels we've looked at. Keep in mind
that even in devices based on the same sensing method, performance and functions can vary widely
in the actual products. Use this information only as an introduction to general product characteristics.
Additionally, given daily advances in touch-panel technological innovations and cost reductions, the
information below is only a snapshot of current trends as of September 2010.
Differences in and characteristics of main touch-panel sensing methods
Sensing
method
Resistive
film
Capacitive SAW Infrared
optical
imaging
Electromagnetic
induction

Light
transmittance
Not so
good
Good Good Excellent Excellent

Finger touch Excellent Excellent Excellent Excellent No

Gloved touch Excellent No Good Excellent No

Stylus touch Excellent Not so good
(special-
purpose
stylus)
Good
(depends on
material)
Good
(depends
on material)
Excellent (special-
purpose stylus)

Durability Not so
good
Excellent Excellent Excellent Excellent

Resistance to
water drops
Excellent Excellent Not so good Good Excellent

Cost Reasonable Not so
reasonable
Reasonable Not so
reasonable
Not so reasonable

Each touch-panel type offers its own strengths and weaknesses. No single sensing method currently
offers overwhelming superiority in all aspects. Choose a product after considering the intended use
and environmental factors.