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. 
  • Visit Insider’s Tech Reference library for more stories.

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.

Apple’s MacBook trackpads use haptic feedback for the Force Click feature.Ye Naiquan /EyeEm/Getty Images

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.

Haptic touch in action on an iPhone XR — when you long-press on an app, you’ll feel a haptic vibration and a menu opens.William Antonelli/Insider

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.

The Nintendo Switch uses an advanced form of haptic feedback, called HD Rumble, in its Joy-Con controllers.Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for Nintendo of America

These systems have become more sophisticated in the years since  — now some games have moments that depend entirely on those feedback sensations, and more intensive games like “Call of Duty” or sports games feel more immersive with consistent haptic feedback.

Haptics are also used in Apple watches, in the little “click” sensations you feel when you scroll using the digital crown. They’re also used for a variety of touchscreens beside the iPhone, including on iPads and Mac computer.

The Apple Watch uses haptic technology in its digital crown, creating a tactile sensation while scrolling.Lisa Eadicicco/Insider

In addition, Apple has devices called the Magic Mouse and a Magic Trackpad — these devices don’t have any actual buttons, but they feel like they do. When you click on something with them, the sensation that you feel is haptic.

Of course, this list is by no means exhaustive — there are thousands of different ways haptics are used in our lives, from some smart TV remotes to digital dashboards in cars to high-tech medical training devices that help students practice surgery before they’re ready to operate on real people.

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