Although touchscreen controls are appearing in the dashboards of an increasing number of vehicles, they're still not something that one generally associates with economy cars. That may be about to change, however, as Continental has announced an "infrared curtain" system that could allow for inexpensive multi-touch functionality in any automobile.
The infrared curtain consists of a square frame with a series of LEDs along two adjacent sides, and a series of photodiodes along the other two. Each LED emits a beam of infrared light, which is picked up and converted into an electrical signal by the photodiode located in the corresponding spot on the opposite side of the frame.
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That frame is built into the outside edges of an LCD screen, which displays the same control features as would be found on a regular capacitive touchscreen.
When the user reaches through the grid of infrared light beams to touch one of the onscreen controls, their finger blocks some of the beams. Those beams' photodiodes temporarily stop receiving light, and thus cease sending a signal. By analyzing the combination of affected photodiodes, the system can determine the location of the user's finger relative to the controls on the screen, in real time.
Unlike an earlier simpler version of the system, the infrared curtain can also identify multi-touch gestures such as pinching and zooming. Additionally, unlike the case with a traditional touchscreen, it still works if users are wearing regular non-capacitive gloves.
Continental is now working on minimizing how much the frame sticks out relative to the surface of the screen, and expects to have the technology ready for production by 2017.
For an example of a similar system, check out Texas A&M University's experimental ZeroTouch setup.
Source: ContinentalView gallery - 2 images