What it is: The Taptic Engine is a way to give feedback to the user through touch. Force Touch is a way to let the user get feedback when touching an item that normally doesn’t provide tactile feedback.
The typical user interface relies on sight. Use any computer and you’ll see icons that you can click on to give the computer commands. Click the mouse or tap on a keyboard and you can feel when you give a command to the computer. Tactile feedback has been used for years to help you verify that you gave a command to the computer.
The problem is that user interfaces rely on sight. When you give a command to a computer through a mouse click or keyboard, tactile feedback tells you when you did something, but when the computer does something in return, you have to look and see what it did. The computer won’t use tactile feedback to let you know what it just did. If you don’t look, you’ll never see what the computer did.
For computers with large monitors, relying on sight alone is fine. However for wearable computers like the Apple Watch, the screen is too tiny to rely on sight alone. That’s why the Apple Watch contains the Taptic Engine that can tap your wrist and notify you when you receive a message. It might sound simple and trivial, but the Taptic Engine provides tactile feedback as a way to expand the user interface to a computer.
Instead of constantly having to glance at a screen to see if you got any messages, you can just strap an Apple Watch to your arm and feel when you get messages. This lets you keep your eyes off the screen and lets you perform other tasks without constantly glancing at a screen.
Force Touch is a different form of haptic technology. With a typical PC, you get tactile feedback from a mouse or keyboard. A mouse and keyboard can be big because they just sit on a desk most of the time. With mobile and wearable computers, space is at a premium. The smaller and thinner the device, the lighter and easier it is to carry around. Given a choice between carrying a heavy mobile phone or a light one, it’s obvious which one most people would choose.
The problem with mobile and wearable computers is that they don’t have room to provide mechanical feedback. A desktop PC keyboard is often larger and thicker than a laptop keyboard because the laptop keyboard needs to save space. By saving space, it also reduces the distance keys need to travel, which provides weaker tactile feedback. Given a choice between a desktop PC keyboard or a laptop keyboard, the desktop PC keyboard provides better tactile feedback almost every time because a desktop PC keyboard has more space to provide better tactile feedback.
Now consider the flat glass screen of a smartphone, tablet or wearable computer. There’s no tactile feedback other than the feel of your fingertips on a flat piece of glass. That’s why Force Touch lets give commands to a computer through the sensation of touch. Push lightly and you give one command. Push harder and you give a different command. Although the surface itself may be flat and immovable, haptic technology can fool your sense of touch into thinking you’re actually moving an item when you really aren’t.
The trackpad of the latest MacBook laptop uses haptic technology. A mechanical trackpad takes up space so you can press down on it to give commands. The MacBook trackpad physically never moves so it takes up less space. By providing haptic feedback, it gives the illusion that you’re pressing down on it. Thus you get the benefit of tactile feedback without the space required for mechanical devices or the eventual unreliability of mechanical devices.
Most user interfaces rely on sight. Occasionally you may hear a beep to alert you if you’re doing something wrong, but the sense of sight and sound are now being expanded to touch to provide a richer and more immersive user experience. The five human senses are:
Old user interfaces relied on sight and a little on sound. Force Touch and the Taptic Engine now add the sensation of touch to user interfaces. Most likely smell and taste will be specialized user interfaces for making virtual reality images seem more realistic, but for now, sight, sound, and touch are the new ways to communicate with a computer. Force Touch and the Taptic Engine are ways to bring the sensation of touch to user interfaces and make computers a little bit easier to use.