Daily wear and tear
Perhaps the most serious roadblock McKinley and Cohen are working through is the same one the researchers at the Max Planck Institute struggle with: Their surface treatment still is not durable enough to withstand a reasonable amount of the wear and tear that comes with the day-to-day life of a touchscreen device.
The real concern is the mechanical robustness, the reliability of the treatment, McKinley says. The oleophobic coating has to be tough enough to resist being scratched or rubbed off after coming into contact with objects like keys.
McKinley compares the challenge to the one faced by the developers of the Teflon surfaces used in nonstick frying pans. When they first came out with frying pans treated with Teflon to make them nonstick, they had same kind of reliability problems, but they still went to market, and, McKinley adds, the Teflon coatings got more and more durable after their introduction. McKinley believes the same thing will likely happen with smudge-resistant treatments used on computer touchscreens.
How long we consumers will have to wait for smudge-free touchscreens depends in part on the willingness of tech companies to get behind the research. Despite the computer makers knowledge of the research going on at MIT, none has provided funding, and licensing discussions are still at the beginning stages. With sufficient funding, McKinley says, he believes they could deliver a working, scalable, and cost-effective solution to touchscreen makers within two to five years.
Money is the limiting factor, McKinley says. Its a question of how much are we willing to pay; how much are we willing to add to the price for something for a smudge-free screen?
No big rush
The truth is, creating smudge-free screens isn't at the top of most manufacturers priority lists. Manufacturers typically see brightness, color saturation, and resolution or pixels per inch as their primary marketing issues for displays on tablets and smartphones, says research scientist Dr. Raymond Soneira, who developed the widely used DisplayMate testing utility.
But touchscreens, especially those for smartphones and tablets, have become a commodity whose main distinguishing feature is simply price. Device makers like Samsung, Dell, HP, and HTC play in an extremely competitive market where margins are squeezed to the limit. These companies are eager to pay lower and lower prices for touchscreens. So naturally the device makers and their touchscreen suppliers are in no hurry to introduce expensive new featuressuch as oleophobic texturingto the screens.
IDCs Huang believes that sooner or later one of the major touchscreen device makers will take the plunge and invest in and license an oleophobic technology that it believes is cost-effective. The other major brands will then follow suit to avoid the perception in the marketplace that theyre being left behind, he says.
Accessory makers try to fill the gap
Right now, it is the accessory makers that have a commercially viable solution to screen smudging. Smartphone and tablet makers can find a wide array of coverings for their devices, featuring different materials and different finishes that provide either a glossy, glass-like finish, or a smooth matte finish instead.
The most popular type of screen protectors appear to be thin plastic film overlays that cover the touchscreen, but are actually made of more complex polyurethane. Wrapsol makes film for a variety of smartphones, tablets, and laptops, and its Ultra screen covers feature three layers: a clear polyurethane resin on the top, a clear hybrid copolymer acrylic pressure-sensitive adhesive in the middle, and finally a film liner on the bottom that sticks to your device.
Wrapsol claims that each layer combines to create a cover that keeps your screen smudge free and that is shock absorbenta great feature for mobile devices that are prone to drops, but less important for larger touchscreen PCs. Polyurethane covers shouldnt affect the touch sensitivity of your screen, so you wont have to apply more pressure or use it any differently. Other popular screen protectors made from polyurethane include Moshis iVisor and Zaggs InvisibleShield.
Polyethylene terephthalatemore commonly known as PETis also used in making screen protectors. BodyGuardz uses PET, which is a polyester-based plastic, to make its ScreenGuardz line to resist fingerprints and reduce glare.
The company actually uses different materials to protect against different elements: Its high-end cases are made from PET that protects against glare, scratches, and fingerprints, but the companys Classic screen protector is made of clear vinyl and is not as strong. Vinyl covers are cheaper and meant to be disposablejust toss it and install a new one when it wears out. But PET and polyurethane covers are meant to be more long-lasting.
While mobile devices have plenty of accessories that are designed to help clean their touchscreens or to prevent them from getting smudgy to begin with, the market is a little far behind when it comes to touchscreen PCs.
Perhaps this is because such PCs arent quite mainstream enough to warrant their own line of screen protectors, or because the touch displays are easy enough to keep clean with basic household glass cleaners or good old distilled water.
TouchWindow makes a series of touchscreen overlays and protective films for desktop monitors, as does Posr.us, and these overlays will reduce fingerprints, but at a costyour beautiful display might look less polished and dull. If you prefer the crisp look of the display, it might just be easier to clean it every once in awhile.
The first mobile phone with a capacitive touchscreenone that responded to touch instead of a styluswas the LG Prada, which debuted in 2006. Touchscreen phones soon because the norm, starting with the original iPhone in 2007. Capacitive touch tablets didnt become popular until 2010, and although commercial touchscreen PCs have been around since the 1980s (like the HP-150 that came out in 1983), they became more widespread around 2007 with the introduction of all-in-one touchscreen TVs.
Younger users have grown up with touchscreen devices. Even if theyre not using the devices themselves, this type of navigation is ever present, from point-of-sale cash register systems to self checkout registers at the grocery store, flight check-in kiosks at the airport, ATMs, childrens toys, TV remotesand of course, tablets, mobile phones, e-readers, and handheld video game consoles like the PSP and Nintendo DS. Kids are used to touching stuff, as so many of their everyday screen products have a touch-based interface.
So, for these youngsters, touching a desktop monitor or a laptop display probably doesnt seem like a big deal. Where some of us are a little hesitant to just reach out and swipe across a computer monitor, others embrace it.