What it is: haptic feedback uses touch as a way to interact with the user.
When most people use a computer, they rely on sight. They look for pull-down menus and icons to click on, and then the user interface displays something different on the screen. While visual interaction is the most common way to use a computer, there’s also audio (a beep to alert you when you’re trying to do something that’s not allowed) along with tactile feedback when you press a key on the keyboard.
When you consider the five senses (sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell), you can see that computers will probably have a hard time mimicking taste and smell interfaces, but user interfaces can improve visual, audio, and haptic (touch) feedback. One problem with smartphones and tablets is that they rely on a virtual keyboard. That means typing on a flat piece of glass.
For many touch typists, typing on glass isn’t the same as typing on a physical keyboard, which is why Apple and other third-parties have been selling physical keyboard accessories for the iPhone and iPad for years.
One way Apple has tried to improve user interaction on a flat piece of glass is through touch. Their 3D Touch/Force Touch feature lets a device respond to different lengths of time and pressure someone taps a screen. Tap a screen lightly and the device acts one way. Press and hold the same area on the screen and the device acts a different way.
Now Apple’s latest patent involves haptic feedback in the horizontal and vertical axis, depending on the orientation of the device. This means that instead of just vibrating to provide haptic feedback no matter what the user does, the device can customize the haptic feedback based on the way the user might be holding a device. This would potentially allow more ways to interact with the user through touch.
Since user interfaces aren’t likely to include taste or smell any time soon, touch is still a largely unexplored area for user interaction. Expect to see haptic feedback appear in virtual keyboards to give you the tactile feedback as if pressing physical keys. Also expect to see more haptic feedback appearing in the iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch.
There’s only so much screen space a smartphone or tablet can offer and there’s only so many ways to use audio as a feedback mechanism as well. Touch represents a new way to deal with mobile and wearable devices that have limited space for visual interaction such as the tiny screen of the Apple Watch.
Touch is the new user interface so don’t be surprised if one day you’ll be able to control a device solely through touch alone one day.