What is haptic feedback?

If you’re an Apple user, you’ve had this experience sometime in the last five years or so. Try the trackpad on an Apple laptop. It seems perfectly normal, until it’s powered down. It’s then that you realize that it doesn’t move when you press down on it. While working on it, you’d swear it does.

The trackpad on Macs looks and acts like pretty much any other trackpad 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.

Or, try pushing hard on an app or on the camera icon on most iPhones. You’ll get the distinct feeling you’re pushing a button. You know you’re not, except your brain sure tells you that you are. Other times, it may feel like the phone is almost knocking back at you, or like you’re turning a knob with distinct “clicks.”

Several high-end carmakers do the same thing. It’s been popular to include a little joystick for moving around the increasingly confusing array on modern cars. In most cases, you’ll actually get a little resistance as you move it, akin to rolling something over a small bump. It’s all smoke and mirrors though. There’s no bump. There’s just a fancy simulation.

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 it’s finally gotten to the point where I’m 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.

Haptic feedback in phones

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 back then 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. It took Apple to really make this feel convincing. Other manufacturers haven’t seen the value of it, though.

Force feedback

“Force feedback” is a more primitive form of haptic technology. 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. Here’s an example. If your character was hit in the leg, you’ll find it harder to move. This sort of haptic technology works well. The gaming experience has included haptics for decades. 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.

Lexus was one of the first to combine force feedback and traditional haptics in the little joysticks that move you around their video screens. If you haven’t tried this you’ll be surprised. It does actually work. The joystick get easier and harder to move as you move over buttons Not only that there’s a feeling like the edge of the button has a real “lip” — it feels like you need more effort to get over it. The net effect is that it’s easier to select the stuff you want without taking 100% of your attention off the road.

The future for haptics

Haptics are here, and they work well, right now.  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. Well that’s what I’m shooting for anyway.

The biggest issue with haptics is really that people still don’t see them as a necessity. Adding haptics to a device adds parts and costs and increases power consumption. Apple’s proven they can do haptics really well, but people don’t think of that as a true differentiator. Until they do, haptics will be a novelty not a necessity.

Haptic touchpads have allowed manufacturers to make smaller and thinner laptops with fewer moving parts for more durability. In the future it will make it easier to make products that are weatherproof. These displays will find a place on factory floors and other harsh environments. Think about a future where  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?

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.