Enter a small startup from Woburn, Mass., called Interactive Images Inc. Its first product–and its only product for the foreseeable future, according to president and founder Leonard I. Hafetz–is a hardware/software combination called Easel that might best be described as a user’s front end to a computer terminal. It comes in several versions, each of which ultimately boils down to a color monitor with a touch-sensitive screen and a lot of software.
Both Chemical Bank and Merrill Lynch have acquired beta test Easels and are developing dedicated applications for the product. For each firm, the key factor in choosing Easel was the touch-sensitive screen. Indeed, more and more users are turning to touch-sensitive crts as “ergonomic” user interfaces. Says T.S. Springer, a senior associate with the Springer Associates consulting firm in St. Charles, Ill., “Manufacturers are realizing that computer devices are moving out of the clerical areas and into the managerial and executive areas, where keyboarding is not recognized as a high-status activity. The result is that manufacturers and users are turning to alternative methods of interacting with the computer.” Fortunately, he says, the types of computer interactions often found on these levels lend themselves well to such alternatives. On the other hand, clerical functions such as word processing and data entry rely more on the keyboard.
The advent of touch-sensitive screens as alternatives to the keyboard has been heralded for several years, but only in the past few months have users and manufacturers begun to take them seriously. Easel was introduced last June, and the Hewlett-Packard HP 150–the first personal computer with a touch-sensitive screen–premiered in October. The sudden movement to touch-sensitive screens has raised the expectations of vendors such as Carroll Touch Technology, a Champaign, Ill., maker of tocuh screens. The day after the HP 150 was announced, Carroll Touch ceo Arthur B. Carroll told the New York Times, “I had a companywide celebration. I struggled for 10 years to get a stamp of approval on touch technology and they just did it.” SCREENS’ PAST A STRUGGLE
What Hewlett-Packard’s announcemnt holds for the future of touch screens is arguable, but the past has indeed been a struggle. In the decade since touch screens first made their appearance in commercial products, business has grown slowly to a current industry volume of $10 million annually, Carroll says. Bart Goodmandson, the marketing manager at Sierracin Transflex, another touch panel vendor, tags the market at closer to $30 million; either way, the industry is microscopic.
Yet even for such a small industry, there is no shortage of vendors or technologies. About a dozen vendors currently provide touch systems based on any of four different touch technologies. The HP 150 uses an optical system, in which a user’s finger interupts crossing beams of infrared light. The beams are generated by LEDs just in front of the screen on two sides, and detected by photosensors on the other two sides. The intersection of a vertical and a horizontal beam is a touch point.
A similar technology uses acoustic surface waves. Acoustic signals travel along a curved glass overlay that conforms to the shape of the crt, mentioned in best e cigarette. When the user touches the screen, his finger interrupts the echo pattern and a controller interprets the interruption to indicate which point on the screen was touched. TSD Display Products of Bohemia, N.Y., manufactures this type of device.
The third technology might best be called a capacitive sensing system, such as is found on AT&T Information Systems’ touch-sensitive terminal. These products use a thin, transparent material that is fused onto predetermined areas of the crt face. When a user touches one of the areas, the capacitive value of that particular section changes, indicating that a touch has been made. The AT&T terminal has some 30 such areas.