Haptic feedback refers to the use of touch and vibrations to communicate sensations or feelings to a user. It’s brought about by software that responds to a user’s interaction, like when a controller vibrates during certain actions performed in a video game or when a smartphone provides a button-clicking sensation as the user presses their screen.
Haptic Feedback Definition
Haptic feedback is the use of physical stimuli, like vibration patterns, to simulate tactile experiences. Examples include a video game controller vibrating and a smartphone screen providing a button-clicking sensation.
Haptic feedback is used to engage more of the user’s senses to provide a deeper and more immersive experience. Products that offer haptic feedback often provide different kinds of sensations to correspond with different visual and audio stimuli.
What Are Haptics?
Haptics is a broad term that describes technologies that engage users’ tactile senses. Haptic technology targets users’ sense of touch and is sometimes seen as a novelty because so few digital products provide intentional tactile experiences.
Since the 1990s, companies have been trying to create consumer products that allow users to receive tactile feedback from devices and “feel” virtual objects, which would come to be known as haptics.
Haptic research company Immersion Corporation began developing a haptic technology in the 2000s for virtual reality gameplay, which consisted of an exoskeleton structure users could wear around their hands. Immersion’s vice president of research and user experience, Manuel Cruz, said the cost of manufacturing the product prevented the company from moving forward with it, because only universities and research labs could afford it.
“It is always about cost, the power it’s going to use and how big it is,” Cruz said about haptic tech. “Those are the main problems that we always have in pushing this technology into the market — because at the end of the day, the devices need to sell.”
Because of this hurdle, haptic technology still seems to be waiting for its breakthrough moment.
How Does Haptic Feedback Work?
Haptic devices use tools like motors, sensors and speakers to create haptic feedback. Devices are programmed to output haptic feedback when a particular action is performed. The mechanical stimulus the user feels can be created by different technologies like skin indentation devices, exoskeleton devices or vibrotactile technology.
Skin indentation devices can be found in a variety of haptic technology like haptic gloves or other wearables. These mechanisms compress skin to imitate a sensation like touching or moving an object.
Exoskeleton devices are typically found in the gaming industry and use active force feedback to create stimuli. These devices rely on electromechanical motors that target specific body parts and correlate to a game experience.
Vibrotactile technology is commonly used in VR haptic devices. Haptic devices equipped with vibrotactile technology use piezoelectric actuators and linear resonant actuators to create rumble and shaking sensations as well as vibrational patterns.
Haptic Feedback Benefits
Haptic feedback provides users an immersive experience by having tactile sensations coincide with what they’re seeing, hearing or interacting with. Think about when you’re typing on a touchscreen device, and how pressing a button on-screen triggers a “clicking” effect, as if the button were a 3D object. This can also apply to entertainment experiences, where a player’s controller can vibrate when steering a vehicle or hitting a target in-game, or how a movie watcher’s seat could shake while watching a 4D film.
Having specific haptic feedback occur for certain scenarios can provide cues into what’s happening on-screen. Feel a long rumble from your phone? You might be getting a phone call. A short rumble? This could be an app notification.
Haptic movements increase accessibility for all users, but especially so for users who have visual or hearing disabilities, as they alert people to key actions or moments without even having to look at or listen to the device.
Touchscreen and Device Navigation Accuracy
Having tactile feedback helps guide users toward what actions are “correct” or produce a desired output from their device. When using a digital keyboard or dashboard, if you don’t feel the distinct “click” from hitting a certain key, this may indicate you have mistyped. Haptic feedback has been seen to improve accuracy for some touchscreen actions and even for robotic surgery training.
Haptic Feedback vs. Haptic Touch
Haptic feedback is the physical reaction the user receives from a device, while Haptic Touch is a specific form of haptic feedback. Haptic Touch is a feature present on the iPhone SE, iPhone XR, iPhone 11 and later models that activates a small vibration on the device and opens a menu when long-pressing on an app.
Haptic Feedback Types
Vibrotactile feedback applies vibrations to stimulate a user’s skin, and is one of the most common types of haptics. This feedback is often used for mobile phones, touchscreens, wearable electronics and video game controllers. Vibrotactile feedback is simple to create and control, but isn’t able to emulate a large range of physical sensations.
Force feedback stimulates the skin, muscles and ligaments of a user to emulate realistic pressure and weight against the body. Force feedback is applied deep enough to activate the musculoskeletal system, being able to move entire body parts like a hand or finger. This is unlike most haptics that only affect the top layer of the skin.
Force feedback haptics are designed as either biomimetic or non-biomimetic, meaning they’re shaped to imitate parts of the human body or they’re not shaped as such. Biomimetic force feedback devices can include wearables like exoskeletons and haptic gloves. Non-biomimetic devices can include steering wheels found on arcade racing game machines or driving simulators.
Electrotactile feedback administers electrical pulses to stimulate the skin and its nerves, down to the nerve endings. It works by placing electrodes directly onto the user’s skin, and doesn’t require any mechanical or moving hardware parts to function. This feedback can also emulate various types of sensations by adjusting the pulse current, voltage, electrode size or electrode material. Electrotactile feedback may be applied to scenarios like medical training, teleoperation or gaming and VR.
Ultrasonic Tactile Feedback
Ultrasonic tactile feedback, or ultrasound tactile feedback, mimics the sensation of real-life objects by emitting high-frequency, ultrasound waves into the air. This feedback utilizes time reversal acoustics, where sound waves are directed toward a specific area in space, creating turbulence and simulating pressure. Wearable devices aren’t required to feel ultrasonic tactile feedback, allowing more natural movement for users.
Thermal feedback haptics simulate temperature changes on the skin, as if a user is touching something hot or cold. This is done by applying a grid of actuators onto the skin, which converts energy to heat and moves it across parts of the body. Unlike vibrotactile feedback, thermal feedback doesn’t require a great amount of actuators to work, as humans aren’t able to pinpoint the location of thermal stimuli as accurately as tactile stimuli. That said, thermal feedback requires heat energy to move around quickly enough to feel realistic, so it can take more power for thermal feedback to equate to the sensations of tactile feedback.
It’s impossible to mention haptics today without talking about the PlayStation 5’s DualSense controller, introduced in 2020. The PS5 controller is capable of precise vibrations that complement in-game scenarios. PlayStation has come a long way since it released its first haptic gamepad, the DualShock controller, in 1997. The DualShock’s “rumble” technology used weights attached to spinning motors to create strong but repetitive vibrations.
The DualSense instead uses electricity to vibrate small metal coils, which result in much more precise vibrations. This technique allows game developers to match vibrations more closely to in-game situations. For instance, players experience different sensations when their avatars run across different types of terrain, such as grass, pavement and sand.
The DualSense also has adaptive triggers, which game developers can program to provide resistance under certain circumstances when players engage the triggers. This can make gameplay feel more realistic, for example by mimicking a gun jamming or giving the right resistance when the avatar is pulling an object.
Korean startup bHaptics creates a line of haptic suits that can be paired with compatible VR games for an added layer of realism. The suit includes a vest, armbands, controllers and a headset, all of which have components that transmit vibrations to the player. When the player is hit during first-person shooter games, for instance, the suit vibrates accordingly.
Realistic, immersive experiences are especially prized in VR gaming, which means it won’t be long before more companies will be creating their own versions of haptic suits.
Ultraleap sells haptic hand-tracking technology that uses ultrasound instead of vibrations to transmit haptic sensations. These devices are made of an array of small ultrasound speakers, which send ultrasonic waves through the air to collide at specific focal points. Users can move their hands through the space in front of the device and feel the landscape of focal points, which are experienced against the skin as pressure, creating the haptic sensations. Its technology may eventually be incorporated into standard virtual reality gaming systems to provide players another way of interacting with the virtual world.
Haptic feedback in mobile devices has become more precise, which has made it more useful for improving the mobile experience. Apple uses haptic feedback to make it more obvious when certain types of actions have occurred, such as successful confirmations or errors.
Apple’s Taptic Engine was originally introduced in 2015 in the Apple watch, and incorporated later into the iPhone. It uses the same technology as PlayStation’s DualSense controller, with electric currents feeding a resonating coil that creates precise and easily controllable vibrations. Games on iOS, such as the racing game GRID Autosport, uses the feedback to transmit realistic sensations to the user.
Apple’s standardized engine allows haptic feedback to be easily incorporated into apps, paving the way for developers to experiment with haptics in games and other applications.
Haptics in Touchpads
Another haptic innovation Apple introduced in 2015 was the haptic trackpad on MacBooks — instead of making the trackpad one big button, Apple used haptic feedback under an immobile trackpad to imitate the feel of a button click.
Switching to a haptic trackpad is an advantage because it decreases the likelihood of a physical breakdown. A mechanical button moves up and down countless times over the course of its life, which can result in the trackpad breaking. Haptics eliminate this mechanical process, extending the life of the device.
Apple’s patent on this innovation prevented other companies from quickly creating their own versions, but Lenovo’s ThinkPad now shares this capability, thanks to hardware company Sensel, which supplies the trackpad for the laptop.
Wearable Wellness Devices
The Apollo device uses haptics for haptics’ sake — to create a soothing sensation that helps users feel calm and relaxed.
It may look like a smartwatch, but Apollo’s wearable device is more concerned about its user’s emotional health than displaying apps on its surface. Apollo can be worn on the wrist or ankle, and it uses vibrations to help users feel relaxed and energized.
Reviewers have reported that using the device actually did make them feel better, in some cases helping them fall asleep more easily. The device is controlled from a phone, where users can select from a suite of vibration patterns and intensities.
The company cites university research trials as the basis for the product and the different modes of vibrations offered. Apollo compares the device’s vibrations to deep breathing — both help create a meditative sensation and help users feel sane and grounded.
While technically a gaming headset, it doesn’t require special programming to use, and works just as well for listening to Spotify.
The headset turns intense sounds, such as in-game explosions or a strong bass, into vibrations felt against the device. For those who want to experience what it’s like “wearing a pair of subwoofers on your head,” haptic headphones might just do the trick.
Haptics in Steering Wheels
Haptic feedback allows drivers to keep their eyes and focus on the road, rather than their screens.
Haptic feedback on car interfaces help drivers keep their eyes on the road while using other features. Touchscreens are especially difficult to navigate while driving, but haptic feedback can let the driver know if a button was successfully selected, saving an extra glance back at the screen.
Haptic Braille Displays
Researchers are developing an ultrasonic way of projecting Braille onto users’ fingertips.
Modern devices include many accessibility features, such as screen readers that can read text and descriptions of the user interface out loud to users. But reading Braille can still come in handy for users who have low vision.
Refreshable Braille displays do exist — they have mechanical pins that are raised and lowered into holes on a flat surface, and users move their fingers across the surface to read the text. But these mechanical displays can be clunky and slow.
That’s why researchers are developing devices to make virtual braille a more viable option. The University of Bayreuth in Germany has developed HaptiRead, a device that uses ultrasonic waves to project Braille onto users’ fingertips, and the University of Washington has developed V-Braille, an infrastructure that can be applied on smartphones that uses vibrations to simulate braille. While neither technology is available to the public, these foundations have the potential to make braille a good alternative to other types of assistive technology.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are haptics?
Haptics describes technologies that provide tactile feedback to users and engage their tactile senses.
What is haptic feedback?
Haptic feedback is the use of touch and vibrations to communicate physical sensations or feelings to a user.
How does haptic feedback work?
Haptic feedback applies vibrations, forces, electrical pulses or sound waves against a user's skin or body to emulate the sensation of touch.
Why is haptic feedback important?
Haptic feedback helps to increase immersion, accessibility and device navigation accuracy for users.