The new soft drink dispenser at a nearby store has touch pads that release soda as long as you are pressing on them. I noticed that if I press a pad with something other than my fingers (like a straw or car key) nothing happens, no matter how hard I press. Yet with my fingers, I sometimes don’t even have to make actual contact — just very close proximity. What is happening here? — RLB
Those touch pads are sensing your presence electronically, not mechanically. More specifically, electric charge on the pad pushes or pulls on electric charge on your finger and the pad’s electronics can tell that you are there by how charge on the pad reacts to charge on your finger.
Because your finger and your body conduct electricity, the pad’s electric charge is actually interacting with the electric charge on your entire body. In contrast, a straw is insulating, so the pad can only interact with charge at its tip, and while your car keys are conducting, they are too small to have the effect that your body has on that pad.
There are at least two ways for a pad and its electronics to sense your body and its electric charges. The first way is for the electronics to apply a rapidly alternating electric charge to the pad and to watch for the pad’s charge to interact with charge outside the pad (i.e., on your body). When the pad is by itself, the electronics can easily reverse the pad’s electric charge because that charge doesn’t interact with anything. But when your hand is near the pad or touching it, it’s much harder for the electronics to reverse the pad’s electric charge. If you’re touch the pad, the electronics has to reverse your charge, too, so the electronics sense a new sluggishness in the pad’s response to charge changes. Even when you’re not quite touching the pad, the electronics has some add difficulty reversing the pad’s charge. That’s because the pad’s charge causes your finger and body to become electrically polarized: charges opposite to those on the pad are attracted onto your finger from your body so that your finger becomes electrically charged opposite to the charge of the pad. When the electronics then tries to withdraw the charge from the pad in order to reverse the pad’s charge, your finger’s charge acts to make that withdrawal difficult. The electronics finds that it must struggle to reverse the pad’s charge even though you’re not in direct contact with the pad. Overall, your finger complicates the charge reversals whenever it’s near or touching the pad.
The second way for the pad’s electronics to sense your presence is to let your body act as an antenna for electromagnetic influences in the environment. We are awash in electric and magnetic fields of all sorts and the electric charge on your body is in ceaseless motion as a result. You’ve probably noticed that touching certain input wires of a stereo amplifier produces lots of noise in the speakers; that’s partly a result of the electromagnetic noise in our environment showing up as moving charge on your body. The little pad on the soda dispenser picks up a little of this electromagnetic noise all by itself. When you approach or touch the pad, however, you dramatically increase the amount of electromagnetic noise in the pad. The pad’s electronics easily detect that new noise.
In short, soda dispenser pads are really detecting large electrically conducting objects. Their ability to sense your finger even before it makes contact is important because they need to work when people are wearing gloves. I first encountered electrical touch sensors in elevators when I was a child and I loved to experiment with them. Conveniently, they’d light up when they detected something and there was no need to clean up spilled soda. We’d try triggering them with elbows and noses, and a whole variety of inanimate objects. They were already pretty good, but modern electronics has made touch pads even better. The touch switches used by some lamps and other appliances function in essentially the same way.