Multi-Touch Technology and the Museum: An Introduction

Touchscreens have altered the way we interact with our world. From scrolling through our Facebook newsfeed, to picking up tickets at the airport kiosk, we use this technology on a daily basis.

Today museums around the world are embracing this tool as a way to promote interactive learning. Multi-touch technology, in particular, can create an interactive and collaborative learning environment. But what exactly is multi-touch technology?  

Multi-touch interfaces are input devices that recognize more than one simultaneous touch on its surface. Unlike single point input devices, users can interact with these surfaces through intuitive real life motions. Through multi-finger gestures, users can swipe, drag, rotate, pinch, stretch and grab virtual content for more immediate interaction. Additionally, multi-touch interfaces recognize gestures from more than one area at a time allowing for more than one user.


Surprisingly, research on multi touch surfaces dates back to the early 1980s. In 1982, the University of Toronto developed the first human controlled multi-touch device: a touch tablet that could recognize multiple points of contract. By 1984, Bob Boie of Bell Labs developed the first transparent multi-touch screen overlay, the primordial ancestor to our iPhones today. These early input devices were the first of many inventions that sought to mimic real life motion.

As the decade continued, organizations from IBM to Bell Labs paved the way for the modern multi touch screen. A variety of new and innovative devices demonstrated the potential for technologies that could recognize a more intuitive human touch.  While single input touch screens gained popularity throughout the 1990s, multi touch screens did not gain commercial recognition until 2007 with Apple’s iPhone.

How Multi Touch Works

The concept of multi-touch technology is to create an invisible interface that blurs the lines between virtual and physical reality. As previously mentioned, multi-touch technology is able to read and respond to multiple simultaneous touches. Rather than simply selecting a single point with a mouse, finger, or stylus, the device itself recognizes whole groupings of points by utilizing grid technology.

Single Touch Technology, Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Single Touch Technology, Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Traditionally, single touch inputs use resistive screen technology responding to pressure from the user’s finger or stylus. Two opposite running electronic currents underneath the screen are separated by spacers until the user touches the screen. The touch changes the flow of these electrical currents, at which point the software recognizes the coordinates and executes the appropriate function.

In contrast, the multi-touch inputs do not call for the user to change the flow of electrical currents. Instead, the most common multi-touch devices use the capacitive screen. This system utilizes anything that consists of an electronic charge including our own skin.

The capacitive screen carries electrical charges in a grid of small wires. Two types of grids exist: surface and projective. Surface grids are evenly distributed throughout the device’s surface with corner sensors. Projective grids have a separate sensor chip. Either way when the screen is touched, the device transfers a small electrical charge to the user’s finger in an effort to complete its electrical circuit. The software recognizes a voltage drop at that point of the screen and orders the appropriate action.

Multi Touch Technology grid, Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Multi Touch Technology grid, Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Multi-Touch Technology and Museums

The advent of commercial multi-touch technology opened several opportunities for the museum world. For the past eight years, various museums have incorporated multi-touch technology into their exhibition space. These technologies add a level of personalized interactivity to the exhibition experience.

Take the Cleveland Museum of Art 40 foot-wide interactive wall installed in 2013. The nation’s largest multi-touch screen, up to 16 people can simultaneously explore over 3,000 works of art from the museum’s permanent collection. This moving grid allows visitors to further learn about their favorite works with the touch of their fingertips. Integrated with social media, visitors can share or save their favorite pieces creating a more personalized experience.

View of Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gallery One Interactive Wall. Photo courtesy of   Local Projects  .

View of Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gallery One Interactive Wall. Photo courtesy of Local Projects.

Multi-touch technology can therefore allow visitors to take a certain degree of agency. Just as with the traditional museum experience, visitors can explore what interests them. With the multi-touch technology at the Cleveland Museum of Art, however, actively discover how that interest relates to the museum as a whole.

The Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gallery One is just one of the many ways museums can use multi-touch technology. I will discuss how museums are utilizing multi-touch technology to enhance visitor engagement in my next Research Update.