Touchy Touchscreen? You May Have ‘Zombie Fingers’

Photo (cc) by Orbis UK

If a smartphone or tablet screen seems to ignore you no matter how many times you press it, you could be suffering from “zombie finger.”

This type of inability to get a touchscreen to respond is a hallmark of the diagnosis, Consumer Reports explains.

Andrew Hsu, a technology strategist for Synaptics who helped design early touchscreen technology and bring capacitive touchscreens to mobile devices, tells Consumer Reports that the capacitive touch sensor is a “magical thing” to most people:

“In an ideal situation, you barely touch the surface of the screen and the sensor is able to detect the presence of your finger.”

“Ideal” is a key word, however. Hsu says experts like him have been struggling for two decades with the “very delicate balance” of this technology.

Capacitive touchscreen technology differs from traditional resistive touchscreens, which are based on an analog technology that registers touch via mechanical pressure, Consumer Reports states.

Computer World magazine has described these touchscreens as having two separate layers covered with electrical conductors. When you push down on the top layer, usually a plastic film, it makes contact with the bottom layer, usually glass.

Capacitive touchscreens register touch via electricity. That’s why it’s possible to make contact with this type of device without actually touching it, Consumer Reports explains:

“Because the human body conducts electricity, a fingertip in close proximity to the glass will absorb the electrical charge and create a measurable disturbance in the field, alerting a grid of electrodes on the screen and enabling the phone to register the command.”

People whose fingertips don’t conduct electricity as well have a harder time using capacitive touchscreens. Factors that can thwart capacitive touchscreen technology include:

  • Thick calluses
  • Dry hands
  • Gloves
  • Long fingernails

Using a stylus can help people who find themselves unable to use capacitive touchscreens. Consumer Reports also advises licking or applying a water-based moisturizer to your fingertip to make it a better conductor.

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