There are a number of types of touch screen technology:
A resistive touch screen panel is composed of several layers. The most important are two thin metallic electrically conductive and resistive layers separated by thin space. When some object touches this kind of touch panel, the layers are connected at certain point; the panel then electrically acts similar to two voltage dividers with connected outputs. This causes a change in the electrical current which is registered as a touch event and sent to the controller for processing. When measuring press force, it is useful to add resistor dependent on force in this model -- between the dividers.
Surface Acoustic Wave (SAW)
Surface Acoustic Wave technology uses ultrasonic waves that pass over the touch screen panel. When the panel is touched, a portion of the wave is absorbed. This change in the ultrasonic waves registers the position of the touch event and sends this information to the controller for processing. Surface wave touch screen panels can be damaged by outside elements. Contaminants on the surface can also interfere with the functionality of the touchscreen.
A capacitive touch screen panel is coated with a material, typically indium tin oxide that conducts a continuous electrical current across the sensor. The sensor therefore exhibits a precisely controlled field of stored electrons in both the horizontal and vertical axes - it achieves capacitance. The human body is also an electrical device which has stored electrons and therefore also exhibits capacitance. When the sensor's 'normal' capacitance field (its reference state) is altered by another capacitance field, i.e., someone's finger, electronic circuits located at each corner of the panel measure the resultant 'distortion' in the sine wave characteristics of the reference field and send the information about the event to the controller for mathematical processing. Capacitive sensors can either be touched with a bare finger or with a conductive device being held by a bare hand. Capacitive touch screens are not affected by outside elements and have high clarity, but their complex signal processing electronics increase their cost.
An infraed touch screen panel employs one of two very different methods. One method used thermal induced changes of the surface resistance. This method was sometimes slow and required warm hands. Another method is an array of vertical and horizontal IR sensors that detected the interruption of a modulated light beam near the surface of the screen. IR touch screens have the most durable surfaces and are used in many military applications that require a touch panel display.
In a strain gauge configuration the screen is spring mounted on the four corners and strain gauges are used to determine deflection when the screen is touched. This technology can also measure the Z-axis. Typically used in exposed public systems such as ticket machines due to their resistance to vandalism.
A relatively-modern development in touch screen technology, two or more image sensors are placed around the edges (mostly the corners) of the screen. Infrared backlights are placed in the camera's field of view on the other sides of the screen. A touch shows up as a shadow and each pair of cameras can then be triangulated to locate the touch. This technology is growing in popularity, due to its scalability, versatility, and affordability, especially for larger units.
Dispersive Signal Technology
Introduced in 2002, this system uses sensors to detect the mechanical energy in the glass that occur due to a touch. Complex algorithms then interpret this information and provide the actual location of the touch. The technology claims to be unaffected by dust and other outside elements, including scratches. Since there is no need for additional elements on screen, it also claims to provide excellent optical clarity. Also, since mechanical vibrations are used to detect a touch event, any object can be used to generate these events, including fingers and styli. A downside is that after the initial touch the system cannot detect a motionless finger.
Acoustic Pulse Recognition
This system uses more than two piezoelectric transducers located at some positions of the screen to turn the mechanical energy of a touch (vibration) into an electronic signal. This signal is then converted into an audio file, and then compared to preexisting audio profile for every position on the screen. This system works without a grid of wires running through the screen, the touch screen itself is actually pure glass, giving it the optics and durability of the glass out of which it is made. It works with scratches and dust on the screen, and accuracy is very good. It does not need a conductive object to activate it. It is a major advantage for larger displays. As with the Dispersive Signal Technology system, after the initial touch this system cannot detect a motionless finger.
Frustrated Total Internal Reflection
This optical system works by using the principle of total internal reflection to fill a refractive medium with light. When a finger or other soft object is pressed against the surface, the internal reflection light path is interrupted, making the light reflect outside of the medium and thus visible to a camera behind the medium.
Graphics tablet/screen hybrid technique
This new technique is definitionally not really a touchscreen, but has the same properties, in addition to having much more accuracy. It is a graphics tablet that incorporates an LCD into the tablet itself, allowing the user to draw directly "on" the display surface. It should not be mixed up with tablet pc hybrids.