The iPhone may have popularized the idea of touch-screen interfaces, but this technology actually traces its origins back to the mid-sixties, around the same time colour TV became the new norm. Today, following more than forty years of evolutionary baby steps and breakthroughs, touch screens dominate the tech landscape. So how exactly did we get here, and what might the future look like?
In 2007, Apple wowed consumers with what seemed like a radical concept—the ability to control a phone with a simple swipe or point of a finger directly on the screen. More importantly, it was something the average consumer could afford (albeit not without making sacrifices in other areas).
Prior to that, touch screens were an expensive and obscure technology, reserved for highly specialized tasks such as air traffic control or for public use, such as in a kiosk or ATM. Then came a screen that could be controlled by a stylus (a pen-like implement), but this also had its limitations.
The result was a leap not just in mobile technology, but in user experience design
The iPhone combined the best features of these earlier devices and created something so user-friendly it had almost no learning curve. Young and old alike could pick up an iPhone and instinctively know how to operate it. The result was a leap not just in mobile technology, but in user experience design.
Designing for use in the real world
On the surface, user experience (UX) design seems like a pretty straightforward discipline. After all, the driving motivation is to distill things to their simplest possible form. And while that’s largely true, it doesn’t account for the incredible attention to detail that goes into every decision when designing interactive experiences.
Years of prototyping, trial and error, user testing and even failure go into every new product. Usually, the only reason it gets the green light at all is in response to a specific user pain point. In other words, it has to solve a problem.
When we think of touch-screen interfaces we instinctively think of mobile devices—smartphones, tablets and a growing list of relatives. That’s because the technology was borne out of a need for something more intuitive, more user-friendly for people on the go (i.e. people).
But a less-talked-about benefit of touch screens is the space they save. Because the keypad is accessible via the screen, the device itself can still offer a good-sized viewing area in a portable, convenient package. Every square inch is used to its full potential.
What’s equally impressive is the wide variety of applications and markets that now rely on touch-screen technology. Smartphones may have launched a trend, but innovative minds continue to advance the technology by putting it into practice in creative and useful ways.
In the field of security and access systems, touch-screen interfaces let you do much more than play games or display photos—they connect you directly to your home or business, integrating a wide array of security and comfort features into one screen. Everything from door release and surveillance camera viewing to alarm activation and monitoring can now be managed via a single device, often with one finger.
And thanks to the simplicity and ubiquity of touch-screen interfaces, these devices can be used virtually out of the box. No diagrams to interpret, no complicated technical jargon to wade through.
The future of touch
Although the era of the touch-screen interface is still relatively young (in technology terms, at least), the ongoing quest for better user experiences will continue to push it into exciting new territories. In the near future, you can expect to see an expanded list of gestures for controlling these interfaces, establishing a stronger and more intuitive connection between human and device.
Since there are actually multiple forms of touch-screen technology (somewhere between four and 18, depending on who you ask), the next few years will likely see further improvements in accuracy, durability and affordability. You might even see entirely new forms of this technology.
Already, though, the introduction of wearable technology, hands-free interfaces like Google Glass and computer-chip implants in humans has inspired new ways of interacting with technology. Imagine opening a door by waving your wrist like a swipe-card (it’s been done, by the way; now it’s just up to the marketing department to sell it). Which is all to say: don’t be too surprised if the future of touch is short.