As a sci-fi nerd, I spend a lot of time imagining what commonplace items like a touch screen kiosk will be like in the future.
- Will they follow the trend of all things tech getting smaller and sleeker?
- Will their displays be able to leap off the screen and project in front of us like we see in so many movies?
- Will they become self-aware, go full Skynet and try to take over humanity?
Well, probably not that last one (unless you ask Elon Musk, of course) but you get the idea. When considering the trajectory of the future, I’m of the mind that it’s helpful to look back on the past.
ATMS: Our first touch screen kiosk experience
While the technology that powers touch screens can trace itself all the way back to the 1940’s, for most of us, our first introduction to touch screen kiosk technology came in the form of the automated teller machines, or ATMs, that began to hit the market in the early 1970s. Big and boxy, these metallic behemoths represented a revolutionary development for their time. Designed to give consumers easy access to cash while also allowing bank employees to focus on bigger picture financial tasks, the ATM was all about personal empowerment.
As far as the screens themselves are concerned, the first ATMs employed what’s known as resistive touchscreen technology. This was done by placing a conductive covering over the screen that would make contact with a second conductive sheet that contained the tracer dots. When someone used their hand to apply pressure to the screen, the circuit between the two conductive covers would be closed and the trace dots would register one singular touch point that could be used to interact with the screen.
The fact that only pressure was needed meant that the screens could be used if they were dirty or smudged, or if the user was wearing gloves. While the rudimentary technology limited image clarity and prevented any sort of swiping, the low cost and versatility made the design perfect for ATMS, early arcade games, cash registers, manufacturing floors, and other high-traffic settings.
A blast from the past that defines today
By the 1980’s, the limits of resistive technology had developers turning to an older touch technology whose moment had finally arrived: capacitive technology.
From smartphones to our own self service kiosks, most of today’s touch screens use a variation of capacitive technology. Unlike the pressure dependent designs of old, capacitive screens depend on the touch of conductive surfaces (like a bare finger) to transfer some of the electric charge to the user to manipulate the screen. Because the screens are coated in a transparent electrode layer and surrounded by sensors, the interface registers every place on the screen where the electric charge is being transferred, allowing for multiple touch points.
Although capacitive screens had the same versatility of their resistive ancestors, the new technology allowed for better image resolution and a more interactive experience for the user.
And the future …
So, what does all this mean for the touch screen kiosk of tomorrow? From my point of view, the common trend over the years has been in favor of giving the user a more immersive service tool. One in which they’re not simply seeing the information, but experiencing it. So, I wouldn’t say it’s out of this world to imagine transparent projection touchscreens or virtual reality/augmented reality technology to be hallmarks of the touch screen kiosks of the future.
And speaking of out of this world, it’s hard to imagine touch screen kiosks not playing a role in the future of space exploration. Whether it’s a touch screen interface being to manipulate the controls of ship on a mission to Mars, or just a space age vending machine where the astronauts can get their freeze dried ice cream, touch screen kiosks are likely to continue to define the way humans interact with information.