I know this is the general wisdom, and that someone has asked a similar question here: How can a capacitive touch screen be triggered without human contact?

However, I didn't quite understand the conclusion that by simply grounding e.g. A carrot or stylus, or connecting them to a conductive plate, this would be enough to allow them to activate the touchscreen. Is the idea that the ground or conductive plate pick up enough electricity in the environment that they can act as a substitute for a human?

As a related note, I held a stylus through many layers of folded up, thick woollen sweater, and it was still able to activate the touchscreen. Was my body's electrical signal definitely conducted through the sweater?

Apologies if my question sounds a bit ignorant. I am not an electrician, but I understand the basics of electrical circuitry and how capacitors work. The iPhone's capacitive touchscreen nevertheless seems like a bit of a black box to me.

Thank you all. Based on your responses and my reading of the Q&A referenced by @gbarry, my understanding of this is now almost complete. There remainas these issues that I am unclear on:

  • It seems that it is a very common misconception, then, that it is a body's electrical signal (current) that is necessary to activate the iPhone touchscren in particular. Rather, what is sensed by the electrodes of the touchscreen circuit is either insulation or capacitive coupling, but supposedly not conductivity. Since I always considered insulation and conductivity as belonging on the same scale, could someone perhaps clear this up for me, while illuminating whether or not this is what is meant here by "capacitive coupling"?

  • I have understood that large surface area is often an important determinant of capacitive coupling. Is this the only reason that it is suggested the contacting body be grounded, or is it necessary for another reason, e.g., To "complete the circuit" initiated by the iPhone?

I'll gladly award the bounty to whomever can answer these questions in a way that I can understand! Thank you again.

  • \$\begingroup\$ This comes up often here. Here's one example: electronics.stackexchange.com/questions/60385/… The title is so poor you'd never find it otherwise. \$\endgroup\$
    – gbarry
    May 22, 2013 at 22:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ @gbarry Good point, I went ahead and edited the title of the question you reference, making it slightly ghastly, but I consider that a feature, not a bug. You can edit too though, that's what 2k+ rep gets you :) \$\endgroup\$ May 22, 2013 at 23:39

3 Answers 3


The reason the stylus worked even through layers of wool is related to the very nature of capacitance: It is not about conduction (except at the electrodes themselves), it is about the insulation between the plates: Wool is about as good a dielectric as dry air, if it is not woven with some metallic fiber.

The way capacitive touch screens typically work is that they sense the change in capacitance that occurs when an earthed body - essentially any large conducting body, such as a human - comes close(r) to the surface electrode. By using a metallic stylus, that "earthed body" is being brought closer, with merely the wool in between.

This capacitance change can be measured in a number of ways. A common approach is to inject a high frequency signal between the sensing electrode and the device's own ground plane, with air (or glass, or some other material) as a dielectric between these two "electrodes". Any other conductor coming into proximity changes the dielectric (i.e. insulation) pattern, thus changing the capacitance, and thereby the pattern of load shown by the capacitor across the native capacitance.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Thank you for this. I'm afraid I'm still slightly murky on it. The idea you're conveying is that it's insulation, not conductivity, that is what is being measured in the dielectric, and that the body the iPhone recognizes must be earthed? That would suggest to me that it's nothing to do with an electrical signal, and that a human body could just as well be a wooden block (good insulator), as long as it is earthed... \$\endgroup\$ May 20, 2013 at 21:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ Any further light you could shed on this would be greatly appreciated. \$\endgroup\$ May 22, 2013 at 22:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ @zakgottlieb It's not insulation to a high frequency signal, which passes through capacitors. Capacitors only block direct current. They exhibit a frequency-dependent impedance to alternating current (or the alternating ripple riding on top of direct current). Of course you cannot sense the loading change of a changing capacitance without a load current. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kaz
    May 22, 2013 at 23:24

TL;DR: Grounding is not necessarily important for touchscreens to work. However it influences some sensors.

I think there are some basics required to answer this completely. Obviously a capacitive touchscreen has something to do with capacitance. It recognizes objects, by the change of capacitance they facilitate. Now the interesting bit is: What capacitance exactly does change and how is this capacitance measured by the device?

There are different takes at this. I'm going to go with the one I know best: mutual projected capacitance, which is also the method used in the iPhone touchscreen. This type of sensor uses a matrix of conductors which criss cross the transparent surface (usually glass with etched and printed surface) and thus form crossings. At these crossings no electrical connection in the sense of low resistance is formed but the conductors are very close to each other and thus form the plates of a capacitor with the dielectric between and around them. In this regard the "around them" is also the air in front of the glass. When your finger is in front of the glass it thus replaces a part of the dielectric of these small capacitors. Your finger and also wool has a different dielectric constant (which is just a comparison of how strong the charges in the material react to outside electrical fields) than air. The capacitance is dependent of the dielectric constant of the materials in and around the plates (in this case the plates are the etched, crossing lines on the backside of the glass). Also materials in the region of high electrical field (closer to the intersection) are more important. So all we have to do, to know how close a finger or a piece of wool (which both have a stronger reaction to electrical fields than air) is to our intersection, is to measure the capacitance between these lines and compare that to the capacitance we know from the case "just air in front of the glass".

How do we measure capacitance? In school I learned to measure capacitance by charging the capacitor with a known DC-voltage and a resistor and measure the time it takes to reach a certain voltage at the terminals. This method is obliviously not suited for this case because it would require precisely measuring lots of very small time intervals, since the capacitance of the crossing is quite small.

So we use a different approach: We simply apply a AC-voltage to the capacitors – 3V at 100kHz or so – and measure the current that is apparently flowing through the capacitor. The current measured is obviously not net displacement of charge, since there is no galvanic connection between the terminals of the small capacitor. Its just the moving there and fort of the elastically bound charges in the dielectric (imagine the single electrons moving half a micrometer in one direction and back 100000 times per second, that's the "current" we are talking about here). This current increases with increasing dielectric constant of the surrounding materials. So when you move your finger toward one of these crossings the current apparently flowing through the crossing increases.

edit: Something i forgot at first, is that this also works with conductors up to a certain point and not only dielectrics. This is because by replacing air with an conductor you are "closing the gap" and thus also increasing the capacitance between the plates a bit even though the conductor isn't even between the capacitive lines. You can test this with a spoon hold between two plastic objects: if the outward side of the spoon comes close enough to the touchscreen you also get a touch signal.

Now this still does not explain the bit about the grounding. Your finger does not actually have to be grounded to effect this rise in current. But when it is grounded the rise in current might be a bit higher than what would be expected since there is an additional connection formed for the current to take. The electrons in your finger are not only influenced by the electrical field emitted by the matrix lines, but also by the field that is emitted by your body itself. When you touch the casing of the touchscreen the conductance of your body extends the field of the casing to your fingertip. Thus an additional way for the AC-current is formed through your body. The importance of this additional current is strongly influenced by the design of the sensor. Some sensors may not react any different when you are in touch with its case than when you are not touching it. I tested the capacitive sensor of a Toshiba touchpad just now and for this one its one and the same weather I insulate the stumped carrot, which I used for the test, from my hand or not. So grounding is not important in this case. However there is another effect in touchscreens and -pads that has to be accounted for: the number of matrix crossings affected by an object. Most capacitive touchsensors don't signal a touch if only one crossing shows an increased current or only do so if the current is a lot higher than normal. This is a trick to increase fault tolerance of the sensor so it doesn't show every little piece of dirt or drop of moisture as a touch. Your finger always covers multiple crossings when you move it over the sensor thus it is a good idea to look for a patch of crossings with increased current, to find the exact location of you finger. This is usually done in software or a micro controller that interprets the raw inputs from the matrix. The strength of your touch is usually found by looking at the diameter of the patch with high current crossings. This works because your finger will flatten a bit when you press it against the surface. A stylus may simulate the pressure signature by tuning a resonator inside it, which increases the current in a small spot a lot. But I believe there are different approaches to stylus input.

Please remember that there are a lot of capacitive touch sensors working with different systems. Some are drastically different than what I described here.

If I didn't explain something good enough please tell me.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This DESPERATELY needs some line-breaks. It's one giant blob of text otherwise. \$\endgroup\$ May 23, 2013 at 6:09
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Also, the unit of a capacitor is "capacitance", not "capacity". \$\endgroup\$ May 23, 2013 at 6:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks, this was a helpful answer. That said, from reading around the subject now, I am not sure it is the electrical signal that is in fact what is being measured here at all, but rather EITHER the level of insulation of the contacting body, or its capacitive coupling? I'm not sure how exactly this latter term is measured, if not in terms of conductivity/insulation.... \$\endgroup\$ May 23, 2013 at 16:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ @zakgottlieb: im talking about the system used by the iphone. yes there are indeed other systems that rely on other effects (such as resistive touchscreens). for a list look up the wikipedia artikel on touchscreens. \$\endgroup\$
    – user134450
    May 23, 2013 at 16:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ I am, too. From what I've read the iPhone touchscreen does not require an electrical current from a body... \$\endgroup\$ May 24, 2013 at 9:22

Wool is reported to have a dielectric constant of 1.5 and that increases with moisture content, according to this research book. http://tinyurl.com/nuxvydu (4.5.1). Wool: science and technology edited by W. S. Simpson, Geoff Crawshaw

There are several types of Capacitive touch pad technologies. A popular one is the Shunt Capacitance Method developed by Analog Devices, which requires the hand/body that has the finger must be grounded by stray capacitance to the mobile device. When a 100Khz signal is passthru the insulated matrix of touch points, it is shunted to ground by touching those points thus decreasing or shunting the signal to ground. Older technology relied on increasing the capacitance between layers but depressing the film. This method requires a precision sigma delta ADC's to measure but results in more precise touch location with higher sensitivity.

Further details may be read here. http://www.analog.com/static/imported-files/data_sheets/AD7142.pdf

  • \$\begingroup\$ probably need a gmail login books.google.ca/… \$\endgroup\$
    – user24243
    May 23, 2013 at 0:02

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