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issue: November 2008 APPLIANCE Magazine

Control Panels & Displays
In Touch, In Control

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Jill Russell, contributing editor

Control panels and displays are using more touch and more sensing ability to power-up and drive today’s products.


Apple continues to leave its mark on the world of consumer product design, particularly in the user interface. The latest iPhone and Touch iPod are in huge demand, and consumers are clearly voicing an opinion—they like the hands-on feel made possible through touch interfaces and they want more.

“Consumers are looking for displays with higher resolution, contrast, and more-sophisticated touch screen technology in applications that previously utilized simple LED or LCD displays,” says Gary Olson, director of engineering, Control Products (Chanhassen, MN, U.S.; www.controlproductsinc.com). “Appliance makers have high expectations from their control developers. Expertise in advanced features along with advanced graphics is necessary to keep pace with market demands.”

Appliance companies, from consumer electronics to white goods, are listening. In particular, the rest of the phone industry is trying to meet consumer demand with control panels similar to those on the newest iPhone, which sold in record numbers upon release. LG released a new touch version phone a few months later and T-Mobile, in a partnership with Google, recently released its own phone, the G1. The G1 utilizes touch technology to control the gadget, but also offers a full Qwerty keyboard.

Apple’s iPod set a new standard for user interface and the touch screen 3G iPhone (top) was another blockbuster. But now comes the much-anticipated Google phone (below), with touch screen plus Qwerty keyboard. Does either device define how consumers will interact with their devices?

A Wide Variety

But touch technology isn’t just for the latest mobile phone application or for consumer electronics. Sophisticated touch screens are migrating into other consumer product categories. Touch controls are showing up in commercial applications and even in schools, where interactive whiteboards are changing the learning process.

More than 600,000 interactive whiteboards will be installed worldwide in 2008 and one industry leader, Smartboard maker Smart Technologies ULC (Calgary, AL, Canada; www.smarttech.com), announced the productions of its 1 millionth unit in August. Market research firm Futuresource Consulting says the devices, which hook up to computers and projectors to create large touch-sensitive displays, are forecast to show up in one in six classrooms worldwide.

More traditional appliance touch screen applications are increasing as well. The latest product offerings from Electrolux feature control panels that appear “dark” and blank until touched to illuminate and reveal a bright and colorful display allowing operation of all functions. The displays on the new line of premium appliances use touch sensors to detect touch and tell the panel to turn on, and when touch is no longer sensed, they turn off to leave a sleek and blank display.

Touch displays are pushing the appliance display and control to a new level. Appliance OEMs these days are placing touch sensors under traditional switches to fool consumers into the new technology. Photo courtesy Defond.

Hands Off

Even as touch screens become more popular, some suppliers are exploring the next advance to provide options that go beyond touch.

It seems uncharacteristic for a control panel to eliminate the need for an actual touch, but smart technologies are enabling it. The answer for WaveOn Technologies Inc. is a touchless sensor, designed to be so sensitive it can detect a near-touch from 3 in. away, even when placed beneath 10-mm-thick plastic.

“OEMs have worked hard to replace mechanical switches with membrane and touch switches,” says Charles Miller, CEO of WaveOn (Osceola, WI; U.S.; www.waveon.com). “IC chips designed to enable controls can detect human touch through decals, glass, and other relatively thin materials. Although these ICs are fairly successful in sensing human touch, limited sensitivity makes them unsatisfactory when detecting human presence through materials thicker than 5 mm.”

To address the shortcomings of touch sensors, the supplier offers ultrasensitive capacitive sensors that actuate without touch—or a touch that’s just close enough—and at a low cost relative to mechanical switches. The patent-pending sensors overcome a variety of environmental obstacles such as static, humidity, and temperature, and work behind any nonmetallic control panel.

COO Chad Erickson says that although the technology is now common with flat-panel TVs and glass range cooktops, WaveOn’s technology is pushing the envelope further. The company is looking into applications where a detection of movement might come in handy. One example is the kitchen, where hands are commonly messy with food preparation. Here the sensors could help consumers raise or lower radio or TV volume or answer a phone without touching a thing.

“By replacing mechanical switches with touchless controls, appliance cleanup becomes easier and the risk of contamination with raw foods is dramatically reduced,” Erickson says.

Freescale Semiconductor (Austin, TX, U.S.; www.freescale.com) is also focusing on capacitive, or touchless, sensors with its Flexis MCU series that works from an 8-bit to a 32-bit MCU and features Flash memory. The company’s i.MX solutions support displays with 24-bit color and also enables advanced audio capabilities and graphics, while its 8-bit S08 and 32-bit ColdFire V1 MCUs enable users to simply “add touch” to their existing displays in a cost-effective manner with packaged software and sensor solutions.

“Consumers are becoming increasingly comfortable with technology due to the mass appeal and adoption of mobile phones, digital cameras, and MP3 players,” says Fraser McHenry of Freescale’s Global Segment Marketing Appliance group. “Displays that support menu-driven functionality provide great ease-of-use for the consumer, which can be further enhanced by the addition of touch control functionality.”

Kathleen Jachimiak, product marketing manager for Freescale, says the new solutions provide a complete solution that delivers ease of use. “Appliance designers can take advantage of the performance and rich peripheral set that the i.MX family provides, including USG and Ethernet connectivity. The platform development kit provides a sample layout and reference design showing how to interface with different LCD displays and external components.”

The mainstream touch screen craze was spurred on by Apple’s iPhone. The newest iPhone, the touch screen–operated 3G, sold 1 million units in the first three days it went on sale. The Multi-Touch interface allows users to access more than 3000 iPhone applications. Now the much-anticipated Google Phone is on retail shelves, with a touch screen as well as a Qwerty keyboard. It remains to be seen if one of these control approaches can be called a new standard in the consumer interface.

Simplified Design

OEMs are leveraging more-sophisticated controls and design their products with unique functionality, to make their products stand out against their competitors. This approach has a tendency to translate into more buttons and options on the control panel or display—and more consumer difficulty operating the device.

To keep the control panel simple and sleek-looking, Tim Bixler, sales manager for Global Lighting Technologies (GLT; Brecksville, OH, U.S.; www.glthome.com), says more functions are now placed into a single, menu-driven display such as LED-based molded backlighting, which provides a brighter, user-friendly interface. The company says its MicroLens technology brightens LCD displays by providing consistent and uniform backlighting that requires fewer LEDs while using less power and transmitting less heat.

“Consumers are looking for a user interface that provides more functionality to meet their needs without being, or even looking, overly complicated to use,” Bixler says.

In a recent thermostat application for Carrier Corp., GLT combined button controls with light-up graphics and an LCD with a backlight unit. The end result was a thermostat that not only looked sleek, but was also slimmer and less intrusive to a consumer’s home d├ęcor once installed because of the backlit technology.

Read more about the application:

Electronics Report—Getting Thinner:


Freescale Semiconductor’s MPR083 and MPR084 capacitive touch controllers detect objects without relying on touch. The controllers can be used in washing machine panels, remote controls, portable consumer electronics, and industrial control equipment.

Looks Can Be Deceiving

While the latest display technologies can create sleek aesthetics, OEMs are facing a new hurdle because of it.

“The key concern of many consumers is that if [the control panel] looks elegant, it is likely to be fragile and less durable than systems they’re used to,” says Brenton Judge, engineering director, Defond Group Ltd. Defond in the United States includes Defond North America LLC (Raleigh, NC, U.S., www.dnagroup.com). “By giving customers a system that essentially has an infinite life span and is resistant to dirt and spillages at a minimal cost, we can boost the acceptance of electronic controls in the appliance market.”

To achieve this, Defond is placing smart digital control underneath the facade of traditional mechanical switches that consumers believe to be more reliable. The supplier says its specialty is control systems that simplify use by integrating instructions into the product itself via the display and adding sensors that enable a product to self-adjust according to how a consumer uses the product.

“We have found a niche in smart controls that sit behind what appears to be the traditional mechanical interface consumers grew up with,” Judge says. “For appliance manufacturers, they see a precision control system with improved lifetime and performance, while consumers see the same reliable interface they know and trust.”

3M Touch Systems (Austin, TX, U.S.; www.3mtouch.com) engineered the MicroTouch ToughTouch II capacitive touch screens for environments where impact strength, shatter resistance, brighter displays, superior surface wear, and viewer privacy are a requirement. The construction combines a MicroTouch ClearTek II capacitive touch screen with a 4-mm glass layer optically laminated to the back. With an overall thickness of 8-mm, the touch screen is ideal for unsupervised, vandal-prone environments where ruggedized ATMs and self-service kiosks are used.

Future Displays

One application that may thrive in the future is flexible display technology, or flexible active-matrix displays. Substrate coating and inspection products from NexTechFAS (Austin, TX, U.S.; www.nextechfas.com) are intended to make such displays possible. Their coating technology coats thin, plastic displays with an extrusion method to create a smart, yet flexible display. The company’s defect identification system detects defects up to 300 nm, and can be used with OLED, TFT, and LCD displays.

OLED displays typically offer enhanced contrast ratio and resolution over their LCD counterparts because they do not require a separate backlight. “OLED-based high resolution TVs and mobile devices already exist and the leading display manufacturers have started producing them, but not in high volumes yet. Our technology allows them to produce OLED displays at a higher quality, but at a lower cost,” Alton Hill, an application engineer for the company, tells APPLIANCE. “Touch screens are popping up everywhere. The new trend is multipoint touch screens as you see on iPhones by Apple. Multipoint touch screens allow the user to use more than one point, using two fingers to zoom in and out of an image, for example. In the future, multipoint touch, not simply touch, will be standard.”

Display-based touch screens and intuitive control panels are evolving rapidly, and consumer acceptance is skyrocketing with the mainstream success of mobile devices. The same control technology that makes these devices stand out can benefit—and challenge—designers of traditional appliances. These controls will allow them to engineer appliances with differentiating functionality; but consumers will balk if their home refrigerator is more difficult to operate than their iPhone.

  Nov. 2008 report on Control Panels & Displays:
More Control Panels & Displays


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