We/re familiar with touchscreens. Once restricted to high-tech kiosks, now every mobile phone, GPS, and tablet has one and without them, we'd all be lugging around much heavier devices. The big advance in touch screen technology in recent years has been multi-touch, where screens recognize two or more simultaneous finger tips at the same time. This has lead to great effects such as zooming and rotating of images and websites. Now, this technology has even found its way into the usually Luddite industrial automation world.
So were do we go from here? Gesture control is one idea but that's not really practical in many circumstances, especially when you're in a busy environment where mistakes maybe made. But, other more practical advancements are being researched.
Haptic feedback, that is providing information through touch, has been around for awhile. When you're playing on a console and the controller shakes when you've been shot, that's haptic feedback. But on touch screens that's been difficult to implement. However, researches at Microsoft Research Asia have been demonstrating how to add the feel of physical buttons and other controls to a touch screen. By installing vibrating piezoelectric actuators on the screen, friction can be generated at the point of contact. This means that a smooth sheet of glass can be made to feel as though it has real buttons or sliders on it and these in turn can have the amount of resistance adjusted. For industrial automation and other industries that require operators to precisely adjust settings through knobs and sliders this could be happen soon.
Another bit of technology that's being researched for consumers but has potential in industrial environments is a touch screen that recognizes specific users. Researchers at Disney Research have developed a capacitive screen with resistance sensors attached which measures the unique "impedance profile" of a person's body through their fingers. After holding their finger down on the screen for a few seconds, the device then recognizes that user. In industrial environments where these screens are open to the whole factory floor, there are potential security implications and this profiling could help allow specific users carry out specific tasks assigned to them.
The ubiquity of touch screens is only set to increase and as it continues to do so, the requirements of users will change. The ideas above are only two of the most recent that have been demonstrated in recent conferences but, there may well be more things going on behind the scenes in research labs around the world.