What is haptic feedback?

Let me tell you something — I just tried the new MacBook, the one with a “force touch” trackpad. This thing is a mind trip. When it’s on, you’d swear the trackpad was just… another trackpad. It looks like a trackpad, acts like a trackpad, when you push it you get the feeling like it’s moving and you’re clicking on it. You know, like every other trackpad you’ve ever seen.

Except, then you turn it off and try the same thing and the trackpad does… nothing. It feels like it’s screwed down to the laptop’s chassis (which it is) and there’s no real sense that it’s a trackpad at all. In fact, if Apple wanted to, they could probably just make it totally disappear, or if they wanted to find a way to charge more, they could probably turn the entire surface of the laptop into a trackpad that felt like a trackpad.

How do they do it? Haptic feedback.

Haptic feedback actually applies low-voltage electric shocks or vibrations to your skin that trick you into thinking something’s moving when it isn’t. I’ve been following this technology for years and this is the first time that I’m actually impressed with it.

You’ve probably experienced haptic feedback through a video game controller that rocks and shocks when you’re hit by the enemy. This is actually a very primitive form of haptic feed back that simply uses a vibration motor to give you some form of sensation when something happens. It’s a neat trick but let’s be honest it doesn’t have a lot of use in business unless you have a particularly unscrupulous boss who wants to jolt you out of your current spate of video game play while you’re supposed to be working.

About ten years ago as phones moved toward being giant touch screens, there was an attempt to put haptic feedback into them to let you feel like you were pressing real buttons, because those crazy folks in the 2000s actually thought that was important. I tried several such phones and they were all really disappointing. In this case it was a very mild, localized electric shock that was employed, but it didn’t feel like you were pressing a button, it felt like you were getting a little vibration on your finger. It was more distracting than anything else and the idea was quickly abandoned.

Another form of haptic technology is “force feedback” and you probably experienced this in video games at one point or another as well. This technology uses a variety of different methods to make it easier or harder to move a joystick. For example, if your character was hit in the leg, a game could make it harder for you to move. This sort of haptic technology works well and has been used for over twenty years in gaming, but just like other haptic technologies it doesn’t have a lot of use in the world of business once you get past pranks and other forms of office humor.

The first time I saw haptic technology used in anything even remotely convincing was in a luxury car about three years ago. Lexus, Mercedes and others have combined force feedback and traditional haptics in the little joysticks that move you around their video screens. I have to say, if you haven’t tried this you’ll be surprised at how well it does actually work; not only does the joystick get easier and harder to move as you move over buttons, but there’s a feeling like the edge of the button has a real “lip” that takes a little bit of effort to get to. The net effect is that it’s easier to select the stuff you want without taking 100% of your attention off the road.

All of this brings us back to the present, when Apple has finally found a way to make haptics really convincing. I swear, you will be 100% convinced you are pressing a real button. And that’s really cool, because it opens up the door to touch-sensitive displays that can take the place of keyboards and other controls. This, of course, will finally open the door to those gigantic reconfigurable control panels from Star Trek: The Next Generation and let’s be honest, that’s what we’re really shooting for here.

In the short term, haptic touchpads and keyboards will allow manufacturers to make smaller and thinner laptops with fewer moving parts for more durability. It will make it easier to make products that are weatherproof and can be put on factory floors and other harsh environments. And you know, if haptics become as common as touchscreens are today, people in 2025 will be just as confused about how we can type on glass as people were in 2005. Wouldn’t that be something?