Touch Screen Technology in the 1980s

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The advent of the 1980’s saw the development of the first multi-functional touch screen devices. As the term suggests, it refers to the ability of the monitor surface (for instance a digital product catalogue) to respond to one, two or more points of contact. Multi-touch technology has its roots in the manufacture of synthesizers and electronic music technology. IBM built the first multi-touch computer in the late 1960’s, and first multi-touch screen was used in 1972.

The vehicle connection

The importance of the emerging computer technology was not lost on vehicle manufacturers who by the early 1980s had collectively developed a series of electronic control centres for non-essential functions for high-end and new vehicles. The term non-essential refers functions such as stereo, air conditioning, and heating. The obvious advantage was that the whole interface was visible meaning that the overall operational status of a vehicle could be seen by the occupants. Aside from the resistance from vehicle purists, the main disadvantage was that the interface itself was the only access point by which to control the functions. If anything went wrong with the interface, the only solution was to take the entire vehicle in for repair.

The Toronto connection

The first fully functioning and human controlled multi-touch screen device, developed at the University of Toronto in 1982, was in many ways the prototype of the touch screen tablets and monitors in existence in 2014. This technology was first utilised by vehicle manufacturers as outlined above and was a definite catalyst for the technology in general. In essence, a frosted glass panel was interspersed with so-called “black spots” which appeared on the surface. These places were connected to a camera / computer interface which responded when touched. The surface was in effect a sheet of translucent plastic with the camera set behind it to detect the shadows and impacts which occurred over the black spots.

Commercialisation begins:

By the mid 1980’s, the first touchscreen computers were being manufactured for the emerging business computer industry and its associated markets. These early machines came with a hefty price tag, with stand-alone systems likely to cost in excess of $3000 USD (£1800), to gain an idea of what this means in 2014, the figures need to be multiplied by 2.5. These systems came with operating systems that would be by today’s standards more than obsolete, and many were replete with functionality issues and for many years they remained the preserve of ICT and computing enthusiasts and professionals. A common problem was that when the screen was touched these systems had a tendency to misinterpret which icon was pressed or they would simply crash between applications. By the end of the 1980’s, further innovation had allowed multi-touch screen technology to continue its development. One essential technological achievement was the development of overlay screens that were not only fully transparent, but allowed the user to move and manipulate screen icons very rapidly. These first fully functional multi-touch screens used an array of capacitive technology touch sensors connected to a cathode ray tube (CRT).

As far as the technology industry is concerned, this development provided the foundation that is the mainstay of the portable devices which exist in 2014. Without a doubt, the innovations outlined above have allowed touch screen technology to become a ubiquitous presence in most modern devices.