From mall kiosks to smartphones to tablet computers, touch screens are everywhere you look these days. As technology advances, keyboards and mice are quickly becoming a thing of the past. Why be burdened with cords when you can have what you want with just a touch?

Touch screens are electronic visual displays that allow a user to interact directly with what is displayed on the screen, rather than using a pointing device, such as a mouse. Touch screens are designed to respond to the touch of a finger, although an object — like a stylus — can also be used.

Touch screens are used in all sorts of modern electronic devices, including personal digital assistants (PDAs), satellite navigation systems and video games. Their popularity has surged recently, but the idea for the touch screen goes back several decades.

The idea for the touch screen was first developed by E.A. Johnson at the Royal Radar Establishment in England. His idea was first described in a short article published in 1965.

Given the many different types of devices that use touch screens, it’s no surprise that there are several different types of touch screens. Each type of touch screen works a little differently from the others.

Resistive touch screen systems use two thin metallic layers separated by spacers. An electrical current runs through the two layers. When the screen is touched, the two layers make contact in the exact spot where the screen is touched. This contact creates a change in the electrical field, which a device’s computer operating system can understand.

Capacitive touch screen systems feature a special layer that stores an electrical charge. When the screen is touched, some of the electrical charge is transferred to the user. This decreases the charge on the capacitive layer. The device’s computer operating system can determine from this change in electrical charge where the screen was touched.

For a capacitive system to work, some of the electrical charge must be able to be transmitted to the user. This is why capacitive touch screens may not work properly if you wear gloves that block the transmission of the electrical charge.

Capacitive systems are newer and tend to be more popular than resistive systems, because they transmit more light and provide a clearer picture. Of course, capacitive systems also tend to be more expensive than resistive systems, too.

Surface acoustic wave touch screen systems use transducers and reflectors to measure changes in the reflection of ultrasonic waves caused when the screen is touched. These systems are the most advanced and offer the clearest picture possible. Unfortunately, they’re also extremely expensive.

When touch screens first became popular, they could only sense one point of contact at a time. Technology has advanced greatly in recent years, though. Today, many touch screen devices feature multi-touch technology. This technology allows a touch screen device to interpret multiple points of contact simultaneously.

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    • Hi, Rahul! Those are both GREAT ideas for future Wonders of the Day®! Thank you for visiting Wonderopolis and for leaving us this great comment! :-)

    • That’s an AWESOME question, Nathalie! It would also make a SUPER cool future Wonder of the Day®! We really appreciate all the great ideas and comments that we get from our Wonder Friends just like YOU! :-)

    • It’s super cool technology, isn’t it, Izabella? Thanks so much for leaving us this comment today to let us know you enjoyed this Wonder! :-)

    • That was a really nice thing to say, Elango! Thank you so much for visiting Wonderopolis today and for leaving us another awesome comment! We think YOU rock, too! :-)

  1. Hi Wonderopolis!

    We learned so much from the wonder today (including our teacher!). We were left with a few questions still but one that we were really curious about…

    How does it work when you can buy special gloves that work on touch screens? One of our classmates showed us hers and they have a sort of rubber on the fingertips.

    Thanks!

    • WOW! You guys are GREAT WONDERers, Mme Kirstein’s Grade 6! We bet LOTS of Wonder Friends will be trying to find a way to keep their fingers warm in the coming winter months while still being able to access their touch screen devices!

      We did a little extra WONDERing of our own after your question about touch screen gloves, and found this NY Times article about different types: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/03/technology/personaltech/03GLOVES.html.

      Thank you so much for stopping by Wonderopolis today and for leaving us this awesome comment. You helped US learn some new things about technology, too! :-)

    • We learned a lot from this Wonder, too, Jo Jo! Thanks for letting us know you thought is was awesome! We really appreciate your comment today…and your enthusiasm! :-)

  2. Hi! I love technology! Thank you for telling me about this! I LOVE touch screens, but I never thought of how they worked! Thank you for telling me about it! Now I’ll always know!

    :|

    • Thanks for letting us know that you liked this Wonder of the Day® about touch screens, Techno Girl! We’re so glad you learned some new facts! We think it’s SUPER cool that you love technology, too! :-)

  3. The video is very cool! I LOVE how you can see the nutrition facts! They should put those touch screens on the front of the beverage vending machines.

    • That’s a GREAT idea, Alex! Thank you for visiting Wonderopolis and for letting us know you enjoyed the video for this Wonder of the Day®! :-)

    • Thanks for sharing your personal connection to this Wonder of the Day®, Paige! We’re glad you learned some new things about the history of touch screen technology! :-)

    • They are definitely cool and fun to use, aren’t they, Journey? Thank you so much for checking out this Wonder of the Day®! We’re glad you learned something new! :-)

  4. I always wondered about how touch screens work, and when my teacher said we had to do a project on a wonder in wonderopolis I knew exactly what I wanted my wonder to be…”How do touch-screens work.” I have an IPod touch myself, so I was very courious. After reading the info I had one question, “How does the device know what you are touching and what do where or when the device is touched.” I thought two great facts were “Resistive touch-screen systems use two thin metallic layers seperated by spacers.” and “An electric current runs through the two layers.” I also learned two new vocabulary words, resistive touch-screen systems, and surface acoustic wave touch-screen systems. Thanks a lot for the exciting topic, and all of your great wonders!!:)

    • Thanks so much for letting us know you liked this Wonder about touch screens, Team McNeil! We thought it was really fun to learn how they work, too! There are special people who develop the applications and programs that work on touch screens. They know how to create data that will let the device know exactly when and where you touch it, and the computer inside the device “reads” this data and responds instantly! Pretty cool, huh? :-)

  5. I am considered the tech nerd in my class. I always thought that touch screens use thermal detectors to locate where the person is touching but I guess i was wrong. I think the iPod uses a surface acoustic wave touch screen because it has multi-touch. I was very disappointed when you had nothing on binary numbers. That mall kiosk looks sweet. Some interesting facts were that it doesn’t use heat signatures and capacitive screens give you a shock. Also I have a message for Team McNeil, you forgot to put your number. Any way for my next one I will be looking forward to having a wonder about binary numbers. Last thing, wouldn’t using a heat tracking touch screen be cheaper? 0_o

    • We’re so glad to hear that you learned a lot by exploring this Wonder of the Day®, Ethan, and also that you think Wonderopolis is one of the best websites you visit! Thanks so much for letting us know that! Have a WONDERful day! :-)

    • That’s a great point, Super Athlete! Touch screens are easy to use, which makes them very handy for many of us– and that’s one of the reasons they are so popular! Great work! :)

  6. Wow! I have always wondered how touch screens work! This was very interesting to read and watch. Do you know what is the name of the 1st touch screen phone?

    • Hi Ky Duyen! Thanks for WONDERing with us! We’re so thrilled that you’re learning and WONDERing with us! Happy Holidays! :)

    • Thanks for WONDERing with us today, Jmaryion! We predict that there will be many more touch screens in our future. :-)

    • Hi Daniel! What a great Wonder Question! We may have to save the answer to that one for another day. Keep WONDERing with us! :-)

  7. That is so cool. I want a touch screen for my birthday and I love the idea. I wanted that idea for my wonder that was so cool. I almost started a wonder, almost just like that one. It killed me because that wonder was there, then I responded on this wonder and that is a such a cool wonder on wonderoplis. I love the idea.

    • Awesome, Luca! Sorry, we took your Wonder idea for a submission, but we are glad you liked this Wonder! We hope you get a touch screen for your birthday! Thanks for WONDERing with us, Wonder Friend! :-)

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Have you ever wondered…

  • How do touch screens work?
  • Do all touch screens work the same way?
  • When were touch screens invented?

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Try It Out

We hope you found today’s Wonder of the Day especially touching! Don’t put your hands away just yet, though! Use them to grab a friend or family member to help you explore one or more of the following hands-on activities!

  • What experience do you have with touch screens? Have you ever used a touch screen computer? Maybe you or a friend or family member has a smartphone with a touch screen? Perhaps you have a tablet computer or an e-reader with a touch screen. How about a GPS device in your car? Touch screens can even be found on various things around your town, such as video rental machines, automatic teller machines, and even soda machines in some restaurants. Put on your thinking cap and make a list of all the touch screens you can think of that you’re had a chance to touch in the past day, week, or month! How many can you come up with?
  • Get some practical experience with a touch screen. If you don’t own a smartphone with a touch screen, borrow one from a friend or family member. Try out the different applications on the smartphone. Which ones are easy to use with the touch screen? Are any of the games difficult to play with the touch screen? Does the touch screen work like you thought it would? Why or why not? How sensitive is it? Do you have to actually press on the screen or is the lightest touch enough? How would you improve the touch screen if you could? Share your thoughts with a friend or family member.
  • Up for a challenge? Are you ready to invent the greatest invention ever? Sure, touch screens are really cool. But they’re everywhere these days. If you want to be the next Steve Jobs, you’re going to have to think outside the box. Don’t worry, though. We’ve got a great idea already. We just need you to do the hard work to bring it to life. What is it? The smell-o-vision, of course! Televisions have been around for a long time now. We have touch screen televisions, high-definition televisions and even 3D televisions. Today’s various televisions are a delight for the eyes, the ears and even the fingers. But not the nose! You’ve probably never thought of that, have you? When you watch a cooking show on television, wouldn’t it be great if you could smell what’s cooking? We’d watch The Bacon Channel non-stop! Or what about shows about gardening? Wouldn’t it be great to be able to see — and SMELL — the roses? Of course it would! How would you go about developing the smell-o-vision? What might it look like? How would you convince people to buy it? What television shows would be even better on a smell-o-vision? What shows might NOT be so great? Put your thoughts into writing and even add in some illustrations of what your creation might look like. Email us what you come up with. We can’t wait to see — or SMELL — them!

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