Ask a Scientist: How do touch-screen gloves work? Why do some gloves work on touch screens and not others?

By: Kylia Goodner

As this year’s bitter winter transitions into spring, many of us have already traded our gloves, hats, and scarves for shorts! But, we all still retain the memories of one of winter’s major frustrations: touch screens. Most electronics contain touchscreens that are unresponsive when your fingers are covered by cloth. This, of course, is unless you have special touchscreen gloves. But how do these frustration-reducing winter gloves work?

You may not realize it, but the human body has the ability to store an electric charge, which means that it can be considered to be a “capacitor”. The touchscreens on most modern electronics are known as “capacitive touchscreens,” which just means that they contain sensors that can detect anything that has an electric charge – including your body. So, when your finger touches the screen, it forms a circuit, or connection, between the electrical field within your body and the screen itself.  This connection “tells” the phone what app to open or text to send based on where your finger’s electrical charge touched the screen.

For a capacitive touchscreen to work, you must be able to transmit your body’s electricity to the screen. When you put on gloves, the cloth acts as a barrier between your electrical charge and the touchscreen.  Special touchscreen gloves overcome this by using a conductive wire in the fingertips. These gloves have a metal wire interspersed between the cloth fibers, which allows the electricity in your fingertip to travel through the metal wire in the glove’s fingertips to reach and act on the touchscreen.

Although I extremely appreciate the convenience of a pair of touchscreen gloves, I do not believe that this is the most interesting use of this technology. E-health devices are an up and coming field of research that use technology similar to touchscreen gloves. These wearable devices contain sensors in them that can detect bodily changes in disease symptoms like heart rate, and blood sugar levels, and send these updates directly to your doctor. The use of this wearable technology has the potential to drastically help rural or other populations without continuous access to medical facility, or those with severe chronic diseases. This technology is in its beginning stages, but within a few years, like our body’s electricity, it will be right at your fingertips.