How Does It Work?

We’ve all been in this situation at least once:

It’s miserably cold outside and you need your phone or other touchscreen device for some reason.  Perhaps you’re lost, maybe you want to text a friend, it could even be, perish the thought, to actually make a phone call.  As you fumble with the touchscreen you realize that your increasingly vigorous swipes, pinches and taps are in vain.  Battery dead?  Nope, your device flashed to life when you pressed the physical power button.  So you take off your gloves and, voila, it magically works again… then your fingers go numb.

So why don’t normal gloves or mittens work with touchscreen devices?

You’re electric

The answer lies in the type of screens that almost all handheld devices now use, which are known as “capacitive touchscreens”.  Unlike “resistive touchscreens” (think old Palm Pilots with a stylus, some points of sale machines in checkout lines, and certain screens in hospitals and restaurants), which rely on pressure against the screen to register touch, capacitive touchscreens require contact with something that can conduct electricity (e.g., your finger, certain special styli, etc) to function.

In a nutshell, capacitive touchscreens work like this: humans conduct electricity and touchscreens have an electrical charge (or field).  When you touch the screen you distort the screen’s electrostatic field at the point (or points) of contact which triggers the (hopefully) intended action in the device (e.g., opening an app, typing a letter, zooming in, etc).  By wearing regular gloves you block your body’s natural conductivity so that the charge can’t pass through the glove and register on the screen.

If you’d like to read a more detailed explanation about capacitive touchscreens and how they work, see below for some interesting links and resources.

Breaking through (non-capacitive) barriers

So how do you avoid frozen fingers?

To date, this problem with capacitive touchscreens has been addressed by either (1) removing parts or all of the non-conductive barriers (fingerless gloves), (2) using a conductive stylus, (3) installing aftermarket adapters into the gloves or mittens (conductive buttons or sewn in conductive thread), or (4)  wearing custom gloves with conductive elements or features manufactured specifically for this purpose.

Although each of these solutions has it’s own drawbacks, I’ve found that with the increase in options in the conductive glove market, touchscreen gloves are quickly becoming the most effective (and increasingly affordable) option.  So don’t despair, you needn’t have cold fingers any longer.  Simply have a look around for affordable options, and even some homemade hacks to find the perfect solution for you.  Enjoy!

Additional Resources

  1. An interesting flash presentation from Magna Legal Services
  2. HowStuffWorks explanation
  3. eHow explanation