Touchscreen technology has been around since the early 1970’s. In fact Doctor Sam Hurst is credited with the first “touch sensor” back in 1971 while at the University of Kentucky. Touchscreens have been used in many different devices over the years including ATM machines, cash registers in grocery stores, diagnostic tools in automobile repair shops, and of course in computers. Even with their widespread use it wasn’t until recently that touchscreens caught on as a viable user interface for everyday use. The development of smartphones and consumer tablets like the iPad, Motorola XOOM, Samsung Galaxy tablet among others have driven touchscreens into the mainstream. But does that translate into touchscreens being useful in healthcare? In my mind it does.
The growth of touchscreen use in the consumer market is driving their use in healthcare in much the same way. Familiarity is creating acceptance. This is especially true in healthcare systems where touchscreen technology is being used in lobbies to provide patients with easy access to information, in radiology where physicians use it to manipulate images, by nurses to adjust settings on ventilators and other medical devices, and of course by physicians using tablets to view electronic health records and patient specific information.
There are several advantages to using touchscreen technology.
Improved experience – Touchscreens provide end users an opportunity to interact with the computer, improving the human-computer interface and improving the user’s experience. This may seem like a small thing to many, but this simple idea is one of the reasons that the iPad from Apple has been so successful with users. The device provides a pleasurable experience for the end user secondary to the intuitive touchscreen interface.
Easy access – Touchscreens provide an easy to understand, intuitive interface for the human brain. Touch is a natural way for us to interact with the world around us and pointing at something with our finger is as natural as breathing air.
Saves time – Fumbling with a mouse and keyboard isn’t always the easiest thing to do and touchscreen technology can help. I sometimes use my finger to navigate the touchscreen on my laptop instead of a mouse. I find that using my finger often works better than a mouse to reposition my cursor, access an open application or scroll through a web page. It’s not a big thing, but it improves my experience and makes things easier to access.
Sanitary – Often overlook, but never out of the mind of healthcare providers, is the unsanitary conditions created by a mouse and a keyboard. They’re a great place to harbor germs collected on the hands of everyone that’s touches them. Washing one’s hands before and after using them is a successful strategy for fighting the spread of germs, but this simple solution isn’t always utilized to its logical end. On the other hand, touchscreens can be easily cleaned as part of a routine schedule.
Potential to save money – Full touchscreen technology requires no keyboard or mouse, which both cost money and have to be replaced. Of course this only makes sense if the touchscreen technology does not exceed the cost of a typical monitor. We’re not there yet, but we’re headed in the right direction.
With that said, not all touchscreens are created equal. Let’s have a quick look at the different types of touchscreens in use today.
Resistive touchscreens – Resistive touchscreens are made from glass coated with metal sheets that provide conductivity. Current passes between the layers, and when someone touches the display and pushes the layers together the change in current allows the computer to calculate the location on the screen. In general resistive screens tend to be the most stylus-friendly type of touchscreen. Some manufacturers have made resistive screens that are more finger-friendly, but for the most part they work best with a stylus.
These types of screens are cost-effective, can operate with a pointing device like a pen and are useful for handwriting recognition. Unfortunately they only provide about 75% clarity and don’t offer multi-touch functionality.
Capacitive touchscreens – Composed of an indium tin oxide sheet that retains electrical charge, capacitive touchscreens offer easy finger driven navigation and multi-touch capability. The Indium tin oxide provides a continuous current across the screen. When an end user touches the screen their finger absorbs some of the electrical charge, giving the computer something to work with to calculate the location on the screen.
People love capacitive touchscreens because they’re easy to use, provide multi-touch functionality and transmit 90% of the light from the screen making them easier to use in direct sunlight. Most of the newer smartphones and tablets, i.e. iPad, XOOM, Galaxy, use capacitive touchscreens. The downside is you can’t use your fingernail or a stylus on the screen and they’re typically more expensive.
Surface wave – Surface wave technology uses ultrasonic waves to determine touch inputs. Waves flow invisibly from the edge of the display and over the surface of the touchscreen. Touch from a user’s finger absorbs the ultrasonic wave and allows the computer to determine the location of the touch. Surface wave touchscreens are superior to both capacitive and resistive touchscreens in image clarity, resolution, light transmission and accuracy. But they can’t be completely sealed, making them useful in only less harsh environments.
Infrared (IR) touchscreen – IR touchscreens use infrared sensors along the edges of the screen to sense warmth, i.e. heat generated by the user’s finger. The computer registers the heat on a grid that allows the computer to calculate the location. These touchscreens are durable, but much slower than other touchscreen technologies.
We at Talyst are looking at ways to make better use of touchscreen technology in our products to improve not only the user experience, but to increase usability and productivity as well. We’re currently evaluating which applications in our product line would benefit from the use of a touchscreen and what impact those changes would have on end users. Obviously our goal is to develop applications that will give our end users the best possible touchscreen experience.
The leap to touchscreen technology appears simple at first glance, but becomes more difficult on closer examination. Not all applications are designed with touch in mind. Navigating an application with your finger is only effective if the item you’re trying to touch is easily accessible. Small icons near the edge of a computer screen tend to be difficult to tap with a finger, but easier with a stylus, for example. In addition humans tend to focus on certain areas of a computer screen while ignoring others. Microsoft has done work in this area and demonstrated that tablet PC users tend to focus on the center of the computer screen while writing. I’ve found that to be true when I use a stylus to take notes on my tablet PC. I’ve also observed that people tend to place their fingers in the center of an iPad when using “pinch-to-zoom” to view photos. These are small things to consider, but fascinating and infinitely important nonetheless. Rest assured we’ll figure it out.
While the keyboard and mouse remain king for now, touchscreen technology certainly has the potential to be the disruptive technology necessary to replace them. The future looks like a real hands on experience.