Look Beyond Hospitality Touch Screen Solutions

Whether you realize it or not, touch technology quickly is becoming the intuitive input delivery method of choice. Look no further than self-service food ordering at the gas pump, ATMs, gambling (in the back of a Las Vegas taxi cab of all places), and kiosks at nearly every department store. Depending on the situation, a good touch screen application can be a cheap way of improving the customer experience or making someone's job easier. With demand for solutions that do both, someone out there is putting these deals together. Why shouldn't it be you? I talked with touch technology experts about what specifically you need to know to seize these touch screen opportunities.

Government And Healthcare Are Ripe For Touch Screen Solutions
It's common knowledge that touch screen applications are predominant in the retail POS (point of sale) and hospitality markets. Experts agree that these markets will continue to provide VARs with revenue for years to come. However, chances are you're going to find yourself competing against other POS VARs for sales in these saturated markets. If you're looking for some underserved growth areas, there are plenty. John Dittig, channel sales manager of Elo TouchSystems, notes that he's seeing increases in touch screen adoption in healthcare and industrial applications. "The basic advantages of touch screens are time management and cost savings," says Dittig. "Most touch applications are made for ease of doing business or making employees more effective in their daily roles. There typically are not many disadvantages. Wherever there is a need for a human interface, touch makes processes and procedures better in most verticals."

One hot touch screen market isn't quite a market at all, but rather an emerging subset of the retail market: digital signage. Digital signage can be used to do everything from advertising in-store sales to delivering flight schedule information. Rob Baumgartner, director, commercial business unit of Planar Systems, says he's seeing requests for wide screen and large 40-inch-plus touch displays for digital signage applications. This is great for touch screen vendors, but when it comes to installation, is digital signage a job for a POS VAR or an audio-video specialist? "AV guys are used to some hardware issues including mounting large displays," says Baumgartner. "POS VARs have the advantage of being able to deliver solutions that account for POS needs and wants. Since digital signage typically provides computer-generated content rather than television or movie content, this points to POS VARs as the ones doing the work." If you aren't convinced that digital signage is your next moneymaker, Baumgartner has another idea. "As prices drop and people become more comfortable with touch technology in self-service applications, we've also seen growth in markets such as government, specifically with self-service kiosk applications in post offices and other government offices," says Baumgartner.

Understand The Pros And Cons Of Touch Screen Technologies
Landing on a market is only half the battle. In fact, the environments of each market pose unique challenges and pitfalls the unassuming VAR can fall prey to. "One of the most common mistakes is implementing touch technology based on cost rather than the application or environmental requirements," says Larry Loerch, sales manager, direct and channel sales at 3M Touch Systems. "For instance, offering affordable resistive touch screens in an unsupervised environment could lead to higher cost of ownership and lost revenue due to downtime and replacement/repair of damaged equipment." As your client's trusted advisor, it's ultimately your responsibility to recommend one touch screen over another. Therefore, you should be aware of the benefits and shortcomings associated with all the different touch technologies (see below). Also, the latest technology isn't necessarily the best -- rather, let each specific solution dictate which touch technology you recommend. "How the user interfaces with the touch screen is very important," says Loerch. "For instance, will the unit be used under supervision? Will the user be providing gloved, bare finger, or stylus input? Will the touch screen be located in an area with a large amount of sunlight or heat?" If you're replacing an existing touch screen, Loerch says you should be sure to examine the condition of the existing unit for surface wear, scratches, and contaminants on the screen. It may provide clues as to which technology should be used.

Of course, the prices vary according to brand, touch technology, and size. As a general rule, expect as much as a 20% increase in cost when choosing between different touch technologies. Loerch adds one final piece of information not to be overlooked:  "In addition to choosing the correct touch technology, it's important to ensure the software drivers for the touch screen will work with the operating system of the solution you're putting in place," he says. In the age of plug and play, many assume the addition of what looks like a PC monitor will be recognized by the OS seamlessly.


               Your Guide To Common Touch Screen Technologies
Resistive
  • Utilizes thin electrically charged layers that, when pressed together by an object, create a change in the electrical current registered as a touch event by the controller
  • Most widely used and cost-effective touch technology
  • Can activate with a glove, stylus, pen, or credit card
  • Works with liquid or solid contaminants
  • Typically the lowest-priced option

Infrared (IR) 
An infrared touch screen panel employs one of two very different methodologies. One method uses thermal-induced changes of the surface resistance. This method is sometimes slow and requires warm hands. Another method is an array of vertical and horizontal IR sensors that detects the interruption of a modulated light beam near the surface of the screen. IR touch screens have the most durable surfaces and are used in many military applications that require a touch panel display. 

Surface Acoustic Wave (SAW)
  • Uses ultrasonic waves that pass over the surface of the touch screen. When touched, the ultrasonic waves are interrupted and provide the location of the touch to the screen controller.
  • Hard glass substrate
  • Easy to clean
  • Can activate with a glove, stylus, pen, or credit card
  • High optical quality
  • Durable technology for demanding applications

"The main attraction of SAW is that you can use almost anything to activate it," explains Rob Baumgartner, director, commercial business unit of Planar Systems. "This also is the main drawback -- accidental touches. SAW isn't good in many medical applications because fluids running down a touch screen can change settings."
Capacitive
  • Uses a thin coating to conduct a continuous electrical current across the touch screen sensor. When the current is interrupted by the electrical field of a human touch, the coordinates of the touch are relayed to the controller
  • Hard glass substrate
  • Most durable touch technology available
  • Easy to clean
  • Works with liquid or solid contaminants
  • High optical quality

"People assume it's going to be a finger interacting with the touch screen, but if you watch a touch screen in use, you may be surprised how often people are using other things," says Baumgartner. "The hard surface of capacitive provides protection. Because it relies on electricity instead of a mechanical pressure point, the mechanism doesn't wear out."


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