The Next Frontiers for Touch Technology

The Next Frontiers for Touch Technology

by Bob Senior

As the market for touch, touch-related applications, and materials continues to explode, so do the opportunities for new and innovative product designs and concepts.  Where all this will propel the display industry is just about anyone’s guess, but for sure it will bring about better interfaces and methods for consumers to interact with and control their world in simpler and more efficient ways than ever before.

Perhaps the most hyped touch applications at the moment are automotive and wearable.  The sheer breadth and depth of new wearable companies that launched at CES earlier this year was staggering, but in some ways also a little disappointing.  I didn’t see anything that had any real “wow” appeal.  In general, what I witnessed were a multitude of companies jumping on the bandwagon with underwhelming, relatively conservative, and even what some might call boring designs.

I have to admit that all the necessary components for fashionable wearables are not readily available.  I’m talking about small, flexible OLEDs.  When these do finally arrive in volume, what’s left of the startups and, of course, the big companies should be able to design truly awesome devices that will be differentiated and fashionable.  They will also offer a real use case that will compel people to wear them.  (I read recently that one out of six Americans owns a piece of wearable tech, but that one third of them stopped wearing it after 6 months!)

The trend for flexibility will continue to drive the market toward truly flexible touch materials.  It’s a given that ITO will not work, but will the ITO replacement materials currently touted work?  Just about everyone claims flexibility, but just how will these things stand up in the real market, after many hundreds of thousands of bends, twists, rolls, and even folds?  The stunning answer is that right now no one really knows.  The testing thus far has been cursory; customers can only rely on the marketing promises of the ITO replacement vendors.

Flexibility is one thing, but readability in varying lighting conditions is another.  I have been amazed to see smart watches brandishing ITO-based touch technology that are rendered next to unreadable by reflections as soon as you go outdoors with them.

Automotive applications will also throw interesting challenges at the touch industry.  All of a sudden, car makers want to make just about every surface in the car touch interactive – ok, maybe this is a slight exaggeration!  Clearly, however, a desire for conformable 3-D touch surfaces will set more goals and challenges for the touch industry.  Molding surfaces through tight radii can introduce significant material stretching, anything up to 100%, I’m reliably informed.  This means the touch interface is stretched as well.  Only now are companies beginning to test out base materials and beginning to understand how to solve these real issues, but the general knowledge base remains bereft.

Don’t get me wrong – the consumer market has a knack of driving solutions to these issues.  We are in the exciting phase of discovery, and I’m sure that real, worthwhile, functioning, and fashionable technology is on the way very soon.

The touch-technology articles I assigned for this issue of Information Display reflect the topics outlined above.  For example, I asked Jenny Colegrove, Ph.D., President of Touch Display Research, Inc., to provide a short overview of the market, highlighting what she sees along with some of the key challenges and opportunities facing the industry today and in the immediate future.  Another area of increasing importance to the industry is the use of pens.  I’m delighted, therefore, that On Haran, Ph.D., the research manager at N-trig, has written a superb primer on the subject that deals with the big picture, but also provides information on the detailed user experience issues that are so important in this area.  For my third article, I make no apologies for bringing to a wider audience a revised version of the Display Week 2014 symposium paper presented by my own company, Canatu.  I leave it to you to read, enjoy, and draw your own conclusions.  Thank you to all the authors.  •


Bob Senior has worked in the technology market for 30 years, 24 of which have been in the sphere of touch and human interfaces.