An Inflection Point for Large Touch Displays?

By Bob Raikes
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We’ve finally got to the end of our CES report. It highlights how much of CES is being taken over by the automotive field and how much concentration there was on AR and VR. This week, the finalising of the report was interrupted by the annual BETT education technology show in London. There was lots to look at there, and some big stories and we will publish them on the website over the next few days, with the full report next week.

As I wrote in a Display Daily recently, one of the jobs of analysts like me is to identify inflection points and I think I have seen one over the last few weeks.

Up to now, almost all of the large (55″+) interactive displays that have been shipped have been based on some kind of optical touch technology, whether they use corner cameras or infrared or laser scanning. These technologies have delivered touch at a very good price, partly because the cost doesn’t scale strongly with display size. However, the experience of infrared touch is not the same as the slickness of projected capacitive (procap) touch that Apple introduced the world to with the iPhone.

Scaling the iPhone experience up to large sizes has been a big challenge, both technically and economically. Procap touch in mobile devices uses ITO as the main electrode material and the performance is not really good enough for really big displays, although companies such as 3M have continuously nudged up the upper end of the size that can be made to work. Alternative materials have tended to be very expensive or have some other disadvantages. For example, the metal mesh technology used on some large touch displays can be sometimes seen as a visible structure over the display. However, makers of metal mesh technology have been working on finer grid lines to reduce this effect and, at CES, 3M’s Touch Systems division told us that it would use only metal mesh on its large touch displays.

Also at CES, Cima Nanotech, who we have been reporting on since 2013, showed Ken its large touch displays based on its self-aligning silver nano-particle technology, which has better performance than ITO, and he was impressed with the performance of the 65″ display shown (Cima NanoTech: Pro-cap Writ Large). Cima has a joint venture with Foxconn to make modules (although the firm is really a materials supplier) and although prices weren’t quoted to Ken, Foxconn is not famous for being expensive!

We’ve been reporting on Swedish optical touch company FlatFrog since 2010. We highlighted the company’s technology, which was at last getting into All-in-One PCs, at ISE last year, and recorded a video of an interview (FlatFrog Extends its Optical Touch Technology). At the time, the company assured us that it would be in large displays by the end of 2015. It seems that it achieved this target, as we found at BETT that a new brand, VividTouch, owned by Steljes of the UK, was showing a range of large interactive displays based on the FlatFrog technology. We suspect that we’ll get more news on adoptors at the upcoming ISE show.

Although most of the new displays at BETT were “me too” products based on large LCD displays with Android and infrared touch, which remains the cheapest option (and education is extremely price sensitive), it seems that we are getting to the point where alternative and better-performing touch technology may mean that the idea of interactive meeting room displays is much more appealing to business users and that could, finally, trigger a growth in demand in that segment. So far, business users have generally been unwilling to accept too much compromise in performance in touch, so commercial market growth has been more limited than in education.

Anyway, over the next few weeks, these topics will be front and centre for us as we write up and absorb what we learned at BETT and as we go to ISE for that event.

Bob