The Sky’s the Limit When It Comes to Multi-touch

Airline Touch Screens

On a recent business trip, I watched a movie on the outbound flight. I was impressed at the crispness and clarity of the little movie screen, and how quick and responsive it was as I flipped through the selection menus. After a long week of sales calls and meetings, I decided to treat myself to another movie on the return trip home. As I settled into my seat for the four-hour flight, I was quickly disappointed.

The screens on this particular flight had a washed-out, cloudy appearance. The navigation menus were similar to my previous experience, but I had to be slow and deliberate as I made my selections, often pressing multiple times before I got a response.

The screen on my first flight was projective-capacitive — the same “PCAP” technology used on iPads and most other smart phones and tablets. The screen on my second flight used an older, analog-resistive technology, with a plastic overlay that causes the cloudy appearance. The touch screen is operated by pressing down. As they wear out over time, you have to press harder and harder to get a response.

Resistive touch screens are rapidly being phased out of the commercial market. Once a consumer uses a capacitive screen, they simply will not tolerate the look and responsiveness of resistive ones. Surprisingly, the vast majority of industrial touch screens still use analog-resistive touch technology. If an equipment manufacturer wants to outshine the competitors, the most bang for the buck may be to upgrade from the outdated resistive technology to a modern capacitive touchscreen. The appearance alone is a dramatic improvement, and the end customers will be impressed with the improved responsiveness.

Eventually they will also come to appreciate the fact that the screen does not wear out like resistive screens do. Most resistive screens are rated for one million touches. Depending on the cycle time of the machine, some screens can wear out in a year or two. I’ve actually seen programs that move the start button to different spots on the screen to prevent a single spot from wearing out too quickly. This creative solution annoys the heck out of most operators.

No need for this on a capacitive screen. These screens are typically rated for 50 million touches.

Capacitive technology also opens the door for multi-touch gestures. Multi-touch on an operator interface screen tends to elicit one of two polar opposite responses. The tech-savvy Millennial generation (along with some older technology buffs) will say: “Hey, that’s cool. That’s like my tablet. That’s how everything should work! I want that!”

At the other end of the spectrum come the naysayers: “We never needed that before. Who would want that? If I have to pinch-zoom to use a button, shouldn’t we simply make the button bigger in the first place?”

But this misses the point entirely. One of the biggest benefits of multi-touch is the reduced need for buttons. Traditional operator interface panels use buttons to navigate to and from every screen in the application. On smaller displays, the navigation buttons typically take up a third of the screen. Multi-touch enabled panels can eliminate navigation buttons and allow the application to use the entire screen. This not only enhances the user experience, but also dramatically reduces development time.

By the way, both of my flights were on the same airline, so I won't call them out for using resistive screens on one of their planes. I’m sure they will replace those outdated screens soon. Hopefully we all will.

Tom Craven

With over 25 years of hands-on experience working with OEMs, Tom believes equipment manufacturers are entitled to the same level of operational intelligence on their remote machines as the end-users have with their in-plant systems. Tom uses his industry experience and technical background to help OEMs get the most out of their remote equipment.

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