A FEMA worker in 2009, forced to go partially gloveless to make his calls. Barbaric. [Image Credit: Andrea Booher for FEMA]
The iPhone 5 is hot right now, but this holiday season a new feature in Nokia phones might leave Apple users out in the cold. The Nokia Lumia 820 and 920 models will feature touch screens that are compatible with gloves and mittens, and they’re the absolute first.
But being able to answer your phone without disrobing in the cold seems like something we should have taken care of by now. What’s taken so long?
Gadgets like smartphones and tablets use capacitive touch screens, which work by interacting with electrical charges from human skin. Steven Hoefer, who describes himself as a “Professional Maker” and whose many YouTube videos include a tutorial on how to use conductive thread to make gloves compatible with touch screens, explained that screens consist of “a clear conductive surface that generates an electro-static field.” When anything conductive is brought into the field, he said, “the device can sense it. It so happens that fingers are super conductive.” The field extends just beyond the surface of the screen, which is why thin layers of protective plastic don’t prevent screens from working. But any barrier that disrupts conductivity, like a mitten does, renders the screens useless.
Dialing up the sensitivity of a touch screen so it can cross larger gaps has always been technically possible, but raises other issues.
Jimmy Lin, a senior product marketing manager at Synaptics, which designed the new screens for Nokia, described some of the issues associated with increased sensitivity. “We’re basically boosting up the sensitivity of the screen,” he said, “but by doing that you become more sensitive to noise and less accurate overall.”
Noise, he explained, is the signal disruption caused by anything from a nearby Wi-Fi signal to light shining on the phone at a certain wavelength. Synaptics overcame this hurdle with specially developed software. By using algorithms designed to recognize touch input and ignore noise, the engineers at Synaptics are confident that the software will allow consumers to wear gloves without having a hypersensitive touch interface. Lin insists this means more than just easier wintertime texting, too: With gloves no longer an issue, touch screens could someday be used in operating rooms.
Some surgeons already use touch screens during surgeries by covering them in plastic baggies, but the usability is less than ideal. Glove-compatible screens could be easier to keep sterile than conventional electronics that use keys and buttons, Lin points out.
Glove-able phones are likely just the start of a move to bring many improvements to touch screen technology, according to Chris Harrison, a Ph.D. candidate in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Harrison is excited to see the new tech in action. “Everyone realizes the current state of touch screens just isn’t great,” he said. “It seems like Nokia and Synaptics are making higher sensitivity commercially viable, which is fantastic.”
Soon, he said, instead of having to accommodate ourselves to the screens, we’ll have screens that are designed to accommodate our needs. “Soon enough all these features will add up, and we’ll be saying, ‘What, I have to take my gloves off to type? What is this, the 2000s?’”