Capacitive sensing

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In electrical engineering, capacitive sensing (sometimes capacitance sensing) is a technology, based on capacitive coupling, that can detect and measure anything that is conductive or has a dielectric different from air. Many types of sensors use capacitive sensing, including sensors to detect and measure proximity, pressure, position and displacement, force, humidity, fluid level, and acceleration. Human interface devices based on capacitive sensing, such as trackpads, [1] can replace the computer mouse. Digital audio players, mobile phones, and tablet computers use capacitive sensing touchscreens as input devices. [2] Capacitive sensors can also replace mechanical buttons.

Electrical engineering Field of engineering that deals with electricity

Electrical engineering is a technical discipline concerned with the study, design and application of equipment, devices and systems which use electricity, electronics, and electromagnetism. It emerged as an identified activity in the latter half of the 19th century after commercialization of the electric telegraph, the telephone, and electrical power generation, distribution and use.

Capacitive coupling

Capacitive coupling is the transfer of energy within an electrical network or between distant networks by means of displacement current between circuit(s) nodes, induced by the electric field. This coupling can have an intentional or accidental effect.

Dielectric electrically poorly conducting or non-conducting, non-metallic substance of which charge carriers are generally not free to move

A dielectric is an electrical insulator that can be polarized by an applied electric field. When a dielectric is placed in an electric field, electric charges do not flow through the material as they do in an electrical conductor but only slightly shift from their average equilibrium positions causing dielectric polarization. Because of dielectric polarization, positive charges are displaced in the direction of the field and negative charges shift in the direction opposite to the field. This creates an internal electric field that reduces the overall field within the dielectric itself. If a dielectric is composed of weakly bonded molecules, those molecules not only become polarized, but also reorient so that their symmetry axes align to the field.


A capacitive touchscreen typically consists of a capacitive touch sensor, application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) controller and digital signal processor (DSP) fabricated from CMOS (complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor) technology. Capacitive sensing is commonly used for mobile multi-touch displays, popularized by Apple's iPhone in 2007. [3] [4]

Sensor converter that measures a physical quantity and converts it into a signal

In the broadest definition, a sensor is a device, module, machine, or subsystem whose purpose is to detect events or changes in its environment and send the information to other electronics, frequently a computer processor. A sensor is always used with other electronics.

Application-specific integrated circuit Integrated circuit customized (typically optimized) for a specific task

An application-specific integrated circuit is an integrated circuit (IC) chip customized for a particular use, rather than intended for general-purpose use. For example, a chip designed to run in a digital voice recorder or a high-efficiency bitcoin miner is an ASIC. Application-specific standard product (ASSP) chips are intermediate between ASICs and industry standard integrated circuits like the 7400 series or the 4000 series. ASIC chips are typically fabricated using metal-oxide-semiconductor (MOS) technology, as MOS integrated circuit chips.

Digital signal processor specialized microprocessor optimized for digital signal processing

A digital signal processor (DSP) is a specialized microprocessor chip, with its architecture optimized for the operational needs of digital signal processing. DSPs are fabricated on MOS integrated circuit chips. They are widely used in audio signal processing, telecommunications, digital image processing, radar, sonar and speech recognition systems, and in common consumer electronic devices such as mobile phones, disk drives and high-definition television (HDTV) products.


Capacitive sensors are constructed from many different media, such as copper, indium tin oxide (ITO) and printed ink. Copper capacitive sensors can be implemented on standard FR4 PCBs as well as on flexible material. ITO allows the capacitive sensor to be up to 90% transparent (for one layer solutions, such as touch phone screens). Size and spacing of the capacitive sensor are both very important to the sensor's performance. In addition to the size of the sensor, and its spacing relative to the ground plane, the type of ground plane used is very important. Since the parasitic capacitance of the sensor is related to the electric field's (e-field) path to ground, it is important to choose a ground plane that limits the concentration of e-field lines with no conductive object present.

Indium tin oxide (ITO) is a ternary composition of indium, tin and oxygen in varying proportions. Depending on the oxygen content, it can either be described as a ceramic or alloy. Indium tin oxide is typically encountered as an oxygen-saturated composition with a formulation of 74% In, 18% O2, and 8% Sn by weight. Oxygen-saturated compositions are so typical, that unsaturated compositions are termed oxygen-deficient ITO. It is transparent and colorless in thin layers, while in bulk form it is yellowish to grey. In the infrared region of the spectrum it acts as a metal-like mirror.

FR-4 is a NEMA grade designation for glass-reinforced epoxy laminate material. FR-4 is a composite material composed of woven fiberglass cloth with an epoxy resin binder that is flame resistant (self-extinguishing).

Ground plane

In electrical engineering, a ground plane is an electrically conductive surface, usually connected to electrical ground. The term has two different meanings in separate areas of electrical engineering. In antenna theory, a ground plane is a conducting surface large in comparison to the wavelength, such as the Earth, which is connected to the transmitter's ground wire and serves as a reflecting surface for radio waves. In printed circuit boards, a ground plane is a large area of copper foil on the board which is connected to the power supply ground terminal and serves as a return path for current from different components on the board.

Designing a capacitance sensing system requires first picking the type of sensing material (FR4, Flex, ITO, etc.). One also needs to understand the environment the device will operate in, such as the full operating temperature range, what radio frequencies are present and how the user will interact with the interface.

An operating temperature is the temperature at which an electrical or mechanical device operates. The device will operate effectively within a specified temperature range which varies based on the device function and application context, and ranges from the minimum operating temperature to the maximum operating temperature. Outside this range of safe operating temperatures the device may fail.

There are two types of capacitive sensing system: mutual capacitance, [5] where the object (finger, conductive stylus) alters the mutual coupling between row and column electrodes, which are scanned sequentially; [6] and self- or absolute capacitance where the object (such as a finger) loads the sensor or increases the parasitic capacitance to ground. In both cases, the difference of a preceding absolute position from the present absolute position yields the relative motion of the object or finger during that time. The technologies are elaborated in the following section.

Surface capacitance

In this basic technology, only one side of the insulator is coated with conductive material. A small voltage is applied to this layer, resulting in a uniform electrostatic field. [7] When a conductor, such as a human finger, touches the uncoated surface, a capacitor is dynamically formed. Because of the sheet resistance of the surface, each corner is measured to have a different effective capacitance. The sensor's controller can determine the location of the touch indirectly from the change in the capacitance as measured from the four corners of the panel: the larger the change in capacitance, the closer the touch is to that corner. With no moving parts, it is moderately durable, but has low resolution, is prone to false signals from parasitic capacitive coupling, and needs calibration during manufacture. Therefore, it is most often used in simple applications such as industrial controls and interactive kiosks. [8]

Voltage difference in the electric potential between two points in space

Voltage, electric potential difference, electric pressure or electric tension is the difference in electric potential between two points. The difference in electric potential between two points in a static electric field is defined as the work needed per unit of charge to move a test charge between the two points. In the International System of Units, the derived unit for voltage is named volt. In SI units, work per unit charge is expressed as joules per coulomb, where 1 volt = 1 joule per 1 coulomb. The official SI definition for volt uses power and current, where 1 volt = 1 watt per 1 ampere. This definition is equivalent to the more commonly used 'joules per coulomb'. Voltage or electric potential difference is denoted symbolically by V, but more often simply as V, for instance in the context of Ohm's or Kirchhoff's circuit laws.

Electrical conductor object or material which permits the flow of electricity

In physics and electrical engineering, a conductor is an object or type of material that allows the flow of charge in one or more directions. Materials made of metal are common electrical conductors. Electrical current is generated by the flow of negatively charged electrons, positively charged holes, and positive or negative ions in some cases.

Capacitor Passive two-terminal electronic component that stores electrical energy in an electric field

A capacitor is a device that stores electrical energy in an electric field. It is a passive electronic component with two terminals.

Projected capacitance

Schema of projected-capacitive touchscreen TouchScreen projective capacitive.svg
Schema of projected-capacitive touchscreen

Projected capacitive touch (PCT) technology is a capacitive technology which allows more accurate and flexible operation, by etching the conductive layer. An X-Y grid is formed either by etching one layer to form a grid pattern of electrodes, or by etching two separate, parallel layers of conductive material with perpendicular lines or tracks to form the grid; comparable to the pixel grid found in many liquid crystal displays (LCD). [9]

The greater resolution of PCT allows operation with no direct contact, such that the conducting layers can be coated with further protective insulating layers, and operate even under screen protectors, or behind weather and vandal-proof glass. Because the top layer of a PCT is glass, PCT is a more robust solution versus resistive touch technology. Depending on the implementation, an active or passive stylus can be used instead of or in addition to a finger. This is common with point of sale devices that require signature capture. Gloved fingers may not be sensed, depending on the implementation and gain settings. Conductive smudges and similar interference on the panel surface can interfere with the performance. Such conductive smudges come mostly from sticky or sweaty finger tips, especially in high humidity environments. Collected dust, which adheres to the screen because of moisture from fingertips can also be a problem.

There are two types of PCT: self capacitance, and mutual capacitance.

Mutual capacitive sensors have a capacitor at each intersection of each row and each column. A 12-by-16 array, for example, would have 192 independent capacitors. A voltage is applied to the rows or columns. Bringing a finger or conductive stylus near the surface of the sensor changes the local electric field which reduces the mutual capacitance. The capacitance change at every individual point on the grid can be measured to accurately determine the touch location by measuring the voltage in the other axis. Mutual capacitance allows multi-touch operation where multiple fingers, palms or styli can be accurately tracked at the same time.

Self-capacitance sensors can have the same X-Y grid as mutual capacitance sensors, but the columns and rows operate independently. With self-capacitance, current senses the capacitive load of a finger on each column or row. This produces a stronger signal than mutual capacitance sensing, but it is unable to resolve accurately more than one finger, which results in "ghosting", or misplaced location sensing. [10]

Circuit design

Capacitance is typically measured indirectly, by using it to control the frequency of an oscillator, or to vary the level of coupling (or attenuation) of an AC signal.

The design of a simple capacitance meter is often based on a relaxation oscillator. The capacitance to be sensed forms a portion of the oscillator's RC circuit or LC circuit. Basically the technique works by charging the unknown capacitance with a known current. (The equation of state for a capacitor is i = C dv/dt. This means that the capacitance equals the current divided by the rate of change of voltage across the capacitor.) The capacitance can be calculated by measuring the charging time required to reach the threshold voltage (of the relaxation oscillator), or equivalently, by measuring the oscillator's frequency. Both of these are proportional to the RC (or LC) time constant of the oscillator circuit.

The primary source of error in capacitance measurements is stray capacitance, which if not guarded against, may fluctuate between roughly 10 pF and 10 nF. The stray capacitance can be held relatively constant by shielding the (high impedance) capacitance signal and then connecting the shield to (a low impedance) ground reference. Also, to minimize the unwanted effects of stray capacitance, it is good practice to locate the sensing electronics as near the sensor electrodes as possible.

Another measurement technique is to apply a fixed-frequency AC-voltage signal across a capacitive divider. This consists of two capacitors in series, one of a known value and the other of an unknown value. An output signal is then taken from across one of the capacitors. The value of the unknown capacitor can be found from the ratio of capacitances, which equals the ratio of the output/input signal amplitudes, as could be measured by an AC voltmeter. More accurate instruments may use a capacitance bridge configuration, similar to a Wheatstone bridge. [11] The capacitance bridge helps to compensate for any variability that may exist in the applied signal.

Comparison with other touchscreen technologies

Capacitive touchscreens are more responsive than resistive touchscreens (which react to any object since no capacitance is needed), but less accurate. However, projective capacitance improves a touchscreen's accuracy as it forms a triangulated grid around the point of touch. [12]

A standard stylus cannot be used for capacitive sensing, but special capacitive stylus, which are conductive, exist for the purpose. One can even make a capacitive stylus by wrapping conductive material, such as anti-static conductive film, around a standard stylus or rolling the film into a tube. [13] Capacitive touchscreens are more expensive to manufacture than resistive touchscreens.[ citation needed ] Some cannot be used with gloves, and can fail to sense correctly with even a small amount of water on the screen.

Mutual capacitive sensors can provide a two-dimensional image of the changes in the electric field. Using this image, a range of applications have been proposed. Authenticating users, [14] [15] estimating the orientation of fingers touching the screen [16] [17] and differentiating between fingers and palms [18] become possible. While capacitive sensors are used for the touchscreens of most smartphones, the capacitive image is typically not exposed to the application layer.

Power supplies with a high level of electronic noise can reduce accuracy.

Pen computing

Capacitive stylus Capacitive Stylus.jpg
Capacitive stylus

Many stylus designs for resistive touchscreens will not register on capacitive sensors because they are not conductive. Styluses that work on capacitive touchscreens primarily designed for fingers are required to simulate the difference in dielectric offered by a human digit. [19]

See also

Related Research Articles

Pointing device input device

A pointing device is an input interface that allows a user to input spatial data to a computer. CAD systems and graphical user interfaces (GUI) allow the user to control and provide data to the computer using physical gestures by moving a hand-held mouse or similar device across the surface of the physical desktop and activating switches on the mouse. Movements of the pointing device are echoed on the screen by movements of the pointer and other visual changes. Common gestures are point and click and drag and drop.

Touchpad pointing device

A touchpad or trackpad is a pointing device featuring a tactile sensor, a specialized surface that can translate the motion and position of a user's fingers to a relative position on the operating system that is made output to the screen. Touchpads are a common feature of laptop computers as opposed to using a mouse on a desktop, and are also used as a substitute for a mouse where desk space is scarce. Because they vary in size, they can also be found on personal digital assistants (PDAs) and some portable media players. Wireless touchpads are also available as detached accessories.

The Hartley oscillator is an electronic oscillator circuit in which the oscillation frequency is determined by a tuned circuit consisting of capacitors and inductors, that is, an LC oscillator. The circuit was invented in 1915 by American engineer Ralph Hartley. The distinguishing feature of the Hartley oscillator is that the tuned circuit consists of a single capacitor in parallel with two inductors in series, and the feedback signal needed for oscillation is taken from the center connection of the two inductors.

Touchscreen input/output device usually layered on the top of an electronic visual display

A touchscreen, or touch screen, is a both input and output device and normally layered on the top of an electronic visual display of an information processing system. A user can give input or control the information processing system through simple or multi-touch gestures by touching the screen with a special stylus or one or more fingers. Some touchscreens use ordinary or specially coated gloves to work while others may only work using a special stylus or pen. The user can use the touchscreen to react to what is displayed and, if the software allows, to control how it is displayed; for example, zooming to increase the text size.

Electronic component basic discrete device or physical entity in an electronic system used to affect electrons or their associated fields

An electronic component is any basic discrete device or physical entity in an electronic system used to affect electrons or their associated fields. Electronic components are mostly industrial products, available in a singular form and are not to be confused with electrical elements, which are conceptual abstractions representing idealized electronic components.

Variable capacitor capacitor whose capacitance may be intentionally and repeatedly changed mechanically or electronically. Variable capacitors are often used in L/C circuits to set the resonance frequency

A variable capacitor is a capacitor whose capacitance may be intentionally and repeatedly changed mechanically or electronically. Variable capacitors are often used in L/C circuits to set the resonance frequency, e.g. to tune a radio, or as a variable reactance, e.g. for impedance matching in antenna tuners.

Capacitor types Quantitative

Capacitors are manufactured in many forms, styles, lengths, girths, and from many materials. They all contain at least two electrical conductors separated by an insulating layer. Capacitors are widely used as parts of electrical circuits in many common electrical devices.

Grid dip oscillator

Grid dip oscillator (GDO), also called grid dip meter, gate dip meter, dip meter, or just dipper, is a type of electronic instrument that measures the resonant frequency of unconnected, nearby radio frequency circuits. It is a variable frequency oscillator that circulates a small-amplitude signal through an exposed coil, whose electromagnetic field can interact with adjacent circuitry. The oscillator loses power when its coil is near a circuit that resonates at the same frequency. A meter on the GDO registers the amplitude drop, or “dip”, hence the name.

A touch switch is a type of switch that only has to be touched by an object to operate. It is used in many lamps and wall switches that have a metal exterior as well as on public computer terminals. A touchscreen includes an array of touch switches on a display. A touch switch is the simplest kind of tactile sensor.

Body capacitance is the physical property of the human body that has it act as a capacitor. Like any other electrically-conductive object, a human body can store electric charge if insulated. The actual amount of capacitance varies with the surroundings; it would be low when standing on top of a pole with nothing nearby, but high when leaning against an insulated, but grounded large metal surface, such as a household refrigerator, or a metal wall in a factory.


In computing, multi-touch is technology that enables a surface to recognize the presence of more than one point of contact with the surface. The origins of multitouch began at CERN, MIT, University of Toronto, Carnegie Mellon University and Bell Labs in the 1970s. Multi-touch was in use as early as 1985. Apple popularized the term "multi-touch" in 2007. Plural-point awareness may be used to implement additional functionality, such as pinch to zoom or to activate certain subroutines attached to predefined gestures.

Ultrasonic transducer

Ultrasonic transducers or ultrasonic sensors are a type of acoustic sensor divided into three broad categories: transmitters, receivers and transceivers. Transmitters convert electrical signals into ultrasound, receivers convert ultrasound into electrical signals, and transceivers can both transmit and receive ultrasound.

Resistive touchscreen touchscrern technology

In electrical engineering, a resistive touchscreen is a touch-sensitive computer display composed of two flexible sheets coated with a resistive material and separated by an air gap or microdots.

In electronic design automation, parasitic extraction is calculation of the parasitic effects in both the designed devices and the required wiring interconnects of an electronic circuit: parasitic capacitances, parasitic resistances and parasitic inductances, commonly called parasitic devices, parasitic components, or simply parasitics.

Capacitive displacement sensor non-contact devices capable of high-resolution measurement of the position and/or change of position of any conductive target

Capacitive displacement sensors "are non-contact devices capable of high-resolution measurement of the position and/or change of position of any conductive target". They are also able to measure the thickness or density of non-conductive materials. Capacitive displacement sensors are used in a wide variety of applications including semiconductor processing, assembly of precision equipment such as disk drives, precision thickness measurements, machine tool metrology and assembly line testing. These types of sensors can be found in machining and manufacturing facilities around the world.


Zytronic is a manufacturer and developer of touch technology products based in Blaydon upon Tyne, United Kingdom.

The history of electrovibration goes back to 1954. It was first discovered by accident and E. Mallinckrodt, A. L. Hughes and W. Sleator Jr. reported “... that dragging a dry finger over a conductive surface covered with a thin insulating layer and excited with a 110 V signal, created a characteristic rubbery feeling”. In their experiment, the finger and the metal surface create a capacitive setup. The attraction force created between the finger and the surface was too weak to perceive, but it generated a rubbery sensation when the finger was moving on the surface. This sensation was named "electrovibration" by the group. Today, Senseg and Disney Research are developing technology that could bring electrovibration to modern touchscreen devices.


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