A guide to haptics, the technology that makes your devices vibrate, shake, and more
- Haptics are any type of technology that gives you a tactile response — for example, when your phone vibrates.
- If you use an iPhone, you may be familiar with Haptic Touch, a feature which vibrates your phone when you long-press the screen.
- Haptics have been around since the 1970s, and are used in medical equipment, video games, and more.
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If you’re in the market for something like a new phone, or you’ve just been reading up on recent technology, you’ve probably come across the term “haptics” more than once.
It may seem like a complex concept, but it’s really not — haptics are any type of technology that give you a tactile response (a response you can physically feel) when you do something.
What to know about haptics
Haptics allow non-responsive surfaces like touchscreens to emulate the feeling of using real objects like buttons and dials. Haptic technology can involve vibrations, motors, and even ultrasound beams to simulate the feeling of touch.
A popular example of haptic feedback can be found on Apple Macbooks. Since about 2016, all Macbook trackpads have a feature that makes a extra click when you press your finger down harder. If you have the “Force Click” option turned on, clicking a word with this extra pressure will look up its definition.
Haptic Touch vs. Haptic feedback
When it comes to iPhones, every model after the iPhone X — this includes the iPhone XR, as well as every iPhone 11 and iPhone 12 — has a feature called Haptic Touch.
Haptic Touch is a specific form of haptic feedback that uses vibrations to mimic sensations like pressing a button or scrolling through a list when you do it on your screen. For example, if you hold your finger on an app icon, you’ll feel a vibration as a menu opens.
If you have an earlier iPhone model than those, you might instead have 3D Touch, which is similar. While Haptic Touch is software based — it makes vibrations based on how long you touch the screen, or where you swipe — 3D Touch is hardware based — it makes vibrations based on how hard you touch the screen.
This made 3D Touch more limited, and also required Apple to give their phones special pressure-sensitive screens. Now, Haptic Touch can do everything 3D Touch did and more.
Where you can find haptic technology
Many of us are familiar with haptic feedback on smartphones. But the truth is that haptic feedback can be found in all sorts of places — even something as simple as a vibrating arcade game controller uses haptic technology to enhance the user experience.
In fact, haptics have been around since the 1970s, when they were first used as part of a warning system in planes to alert pilots about dangerous flight conditions. The controls would vibrate in tandem with turbulence so that pilots could feel what was happening on the outside of the plane.
Since then, the same controls have been used in all kinds of devices — first in arcade games, then in video games like the controllers for the Nintendo 64 or PlayStation. The vibrations in the controllers can correspond with all sorts of in-game actions, like running, fighting, driving, and more.