Published on January 06th, 2009

Capacitive Touchscreen Technology and GPS: The Future is at Your Fingertips!

The ongoing competition among touchscreen technologies isn’t a winner-take-all situation; each technology has its ideal applications in consumer devices; but if you need interactivity and innovative input in a next-generation GPS device, capacitive technology is the right choice.

If you had to boil down the evolution of handheld devices to one word, it would be more. Devices have evolved to include more features and more interactivity, driven by demand from users who want to do more and interact more. And these users also expect more from their GPS devices, PDAs, PMPs, and mobile handsets.

Today’s handheld devices are constantly advancing to meet new consumer expectations. They’re expanding to include new capabilities that make the user experience more exciting and interactive. And they’re getting constant makeovers to look more sleek and streamlined. Just dig around in your desk or basement for a cell phone from the 90s to see how device evolution plays out at the handset level.

Call it The iPhone Effect

Apple’s iPhone pushed consumer expectations to new heights, creating "must have" demand for more compelling ways of interacting with handheld devices. The star of this device is its capacitive touchscreen, which puts a wealth of capabilities at the fingertips of users and lets them navigate between them with ease, using intuitive finger motions, from swipe to pinch.

These quickly become second nature to users, who can interact with their iPhone more efficiently than the previous generations of buttons and keys. The iPhone reset the way consumers think about interfaces, and now there’s no going back.

How does it work?

Take a brief look beneath the hood of an iPhone touchscreen and you’ll find capacitive sensing technology, which senses an electrical property called capacitance. When two electrically conductive objects come near each other without touching, their electric fields interact to form capacitance.

Your finger is also an electrical conductor. So when you place it on the protective screen of a mobile phone or other device with a capacitive touchscreen, a tiny capacitance forms between your finger and the metal electrodes in the sensor/screen beneath the screen. By sensing increases in capacitance, the device can tell precisely where your finger is touching, detect what interactive gestures or motions you’re making, and respond appropriately.

The result? Reliable, sophisticated interaction — the kind that lets users do more and interact more.

What does this mean for GPS?

The demand for more interactivity and capabilities make the touchscreen of any device —GPS and beyond— even more critical. Capacitive touchscreen technology is helping fuel a new generation of GPS devices that will enter the market this year and in early 2009. Capacitive technology is ideally suited for greater interactivity and new kinds of user input and interaction. And it’s becoming part of a growing number of innovative GPS devices.

For GPS device designers, manufacturers, and marketers, these enhanced touchscreens mean a better and expanded user experience. No matter how great the GPS technology is, how the device is used, or where it’s used, users interact with the interface every time they pick up the device. It’s simple. Capacitive touchscreen technology provides a better, richer user experience. And from a bottom-line perspective, capacitive technology lets OEMs and others add value to the device, protecting margins and price points.

Why capacitive and GPS?

There are other types of interface technologies, and each has its sweet spot — the device type, markets, and applications where it’s ideally suited to the needs of users, manufacturers, and the marketplace. Let’s take a look at some of the reasons why capacitive is such a good match for next-generation GPS devices. With capacitive touchscreens, you can:

  • Let users to do more, more easily: Converging/expanding capabilities enable users to do more. But the interface makes it happen by giving users an easy way to get to and use new functions. More capabilities put more importance on the ability to access multiple functionality quickly and easily, and use it intuitively. With capacitive technology, you can add high-value capabilities, while ensuring they’re easy to use.

  • Enable users to see what they’re doing: Capacitive touchscreens are easily used/viewed in even the most difficult lighting conditions. They add high visibility via better optics and less distortion. As display sizes increase, screens need to be visible and easy to use under all conditions.

  • Bring gestures to GPS: Device designers can choose from an almost unlimited range of advanced, multi-touch gestures that serve as interactive cues — pinch, swipe, and more. Capacitive technology can handle the challenge of gestures. Alternative technologies, such as resistive technology, are more mechanical and less flexible. For example movement-based gestures are difficult/impossible with resistive touchpads, which can’t support two-finger gestures.

  • Boost value: Compelling capacitive interfaces help ensure that GPS devices have high value to the consumer, maintaining price points and boosting profitability. It’s not just another interface. It’s a sales and marketing opportunity.

  • Meet the needs of high-temperature environments: Capacitive touchscreens perform well even in challenging environments, such as hot cars, where you often find GPS devices. Performance is consistent and not affected by temperature changes and humidity. And robust capacitive sensors can withstand harsher environments and larger amounts of electrostatic discharge (ESD) — exactly what GPS devices need.

  • Move smoothly: Users find that working with a capacitive interface is simple, since it’s designed for accurate, finger-optimized performance. The surface makes it easy to touch, gesture, select, and perform other key actions — including Chiral motion scrolling, sliding, and more. This high level of usability is particularly important in car-based devices, where a stylus or complicated interface wouldn’t be viable.

  • Choose from a flexible range of form options: When using capacitive technology, device designers have a wide range of options in terms of form. Capacitive technology can use a glass screen and or sensor, or plastic. Resistive can require a bezel and thicker overall device, dictating design constraints.

Looking to the future

The ongoing competition among touchscreen technologies isn’t a winner-take-all situation — like Betamax vs. VHS or BluRay vs. HD-DVD. Each technology has its ideal applications in consumer devices. But if you need interactivity and innovative input in a next-generation GPS device, capacitive technology is the right choice. It unlocks new potential from GPS devices while ensuring the best possible user experience.

Rebecca Parr is manager of corporate communications at Synaptics, Inc. (, which designs and manufactures innovative interfaces for a wide range of devices, from PCs to mobile phones to GPS devices. Prior to Synaptics, Rebecca managed corporate communications for SiRF Technology, a leading provider of GPS-powered location platforms.

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