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It is a real mystery that a lot of people think that touch screen and multi-touch technology is a novelty. Touch screens have a long history, see for example Bill Buxton‘s extensive research on this topic.
In my own work, I stumbled into touch screen research around 1984, while speculating about possibilities to optically interconnect VLSI circuits through optically transmissive substrates. As my own lab did not have the facilities to try out some of the ideas on a micro-scale, we fiddled with normal sized opto-components and circuits, assuming that the principles would scale down if we ever managed to get a budget to pursue this radical idea.
We never found any funding for the VLSI optical interconnects, but we continued to explore the possibilities with the experimental setup, which resulted in the largest touch screens in the world at the time.

Early touch screen prototype, 1986

We were very lucky to get in contact with the local transport company in Gothenburg who gave us an order for three prototype systems. This, in turn, led to contacts with Swedish Rail, via KNM electronics, and a full deployment of our touch technology at all railway stations in Sweden.

One of the first full-scale touch screen for public transport info. 1988

One of the STINS systems, developed for Swedish Rail. 1989.

As my own interest was and remain to make new prototypes, I refocused on making slightly smaller devices that would fit around normal computer screens, CRTs. We succeeded in designing such a smaller system, more lightweight and less expensive.

The VENTRI prototype. A General Purpose Portable Communicator with a touch screen. 1992

This led to explorations of how touch technology may be used by users with different forms of physical disability. We participated in the EU initiative TIDE – Technological Initiative for Disabled and Elderly. In this European collaboration we came to work together with Speech Technology Ltd and Circuits Test and Systems Ltd  at Trinity College in Dublin. The collaboration resulted in a pretty amazing prototype of a General Purpose Portable Communicator targeted at users who could not speak and with various degrees of physical and cognitive impairment. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find funding for any volume production and marketing of the device.

Touch screen for London Underground passenger info. 1993.

Later, I came in contact with Multimedia Technologies Ireland (MTI) in Plassey Technological Park in Limerick and Trinity College in Dublin. Together with MTI, we developed two prototypes of a system for interactive passenger information for London Underground.

My smallest touch screen prototype. Handheld. 1994.

I also started to fiddle with a really small device, a handheld unit. I made one single prototype and tried to show it, in confidence, to a few of the larger manufacturers. The one and only prototype disappeared during one of these excursions and I only have one single photo left of it, from around 1994.

Looks familiar, doesn’t it?

5 Comments

  1. And the rest is history.

  2. I think this story also shows the problem of innovation and timing. In the 80’s, many companies said it was too early and that people would never be able to use systems like these. Today, if I submit a research grant proposal for some other new touch technology, it’ll hardly be considered at all, as that’s existing technology, or, that it’s too commercial (even if it would offer some radical improvement).
    Perhaps the essence is that in technology, the important breakthroughs always happened 10 to 20 years ago, and life moves on with that time lag.

    I have some old video, somewhere, on VHS. If I can find the tapes, I’ll digitize them and put them up online.

  3. It was a long, long, long time ago, when I was thinner and you were clean-shaven Mikael, Mona remains the same……we were all younger, funnily enough I think we are more idealistic now……so thats a happy ending of sorts. Apple will be begging for you to come work for them yet!

    • Ah, I’m happily remembering all those years. I don’t think I’d like to work for Apple, or any other of the large corporations. Right now, I’m more focused on sketching new stuff that’s completely different to anything the world has seen before. As you say, we’re more idealistic now, or Open Source altruistic, as there are so many things that either need to be improved, or to replace current technology.

    • Cool! i have a ton of small boards for the next 2 layer and a few for the next 4 layer. Im still wroking on them.Just wanted to say thanks for this great service and the updates you post here are great! keep up the great work!!


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