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. Haptic tech is not new though — electronics that make use of vibrations (like massagers) have been around for a long time.
What Is Haptic Technology?
What is new, however, is the amount of products that treat tactile sensation as a single feature that adds to the overall enjoyment of the product, instead of as the primary goal of the product.
Indeed, 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.
There are two main categories of haptic feedback: tactile and kinesthetic. Tactile haptic feedback is probably the most common type of haptic feedback — it refers to the vibrations and friction used in cell phones. Kinesthetic haptic feedback describes more abrupt, physical stimuli that change the position of a user’s body — like when an arcade game car seat rumbles or shakes as the player moves through a virtual course.
What Are Haptics?
Since the 1990s, companies have been trying to create consumer products that allow users to receive tactile feedback from devices and “feel” virtual objects. But in haptic technology’s early days, the stuff being developed was largely confined to company research labs, and consumers didn’t have much exposure to practical products ready for the marketplace.
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. Guidelines and best practices are still hard to come by, and companies venturing into haptics are often making up the rules as they go.
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.
There is a distinct difference between haptic touch and haptic feedback. Haptic feedback is the reaction the user receives from the device while haptic touch is a type of feedback. Haptic touch refers to the vibrations that a device creates, typically ones that simulate pushing buttons.
An example of haptic touch is car dashboard touch screens that create a vibration or click when you press an icon to let you know you’ve made a selection. Haptic touch lets users know they have performed an action on their device; this is especially useful in car systems so drivers can pay attention to the road rather than second guess if they’ve clicked the AC button or not.
It’s impossible to mention haptics today without talking about the PlayStation 5’s DualSense controller, introduced in November 2020. The PlayStation 5 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 virtual reality 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.
The biggest current hurdle for bHaptics is increasing the number of games it’s compatible with. Since bHaptics isn’t a mainstream virtual reality platform, game developers still have to make the decision of whether the effort of adding custom haptic feedback for bHaptics is worthwhile.
But game developers seem to be warming to bHaptics, and more games are getting added. 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 a haptic system, STRATOS Inspire, that uses ultrasound instead of vibrations to transmit haptic sensations. The device is 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.
The STRATOS Inspire also suffers from not being part of a hardware standard, which means many developers aren’t writing applications for the system. But the system demonstrates that ultrasound can be a viable method of delivering haptic feedback to users. 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.
These haptic sneakers transmit vibrations that match whatever audio you’re currently enjoying.
If you enjoy haptic headphones and are looking to round out your haptic gear, there are also DropLabs’ haptic sneakers, which can match any audio with corresponding vibrations felt through the shoes. The vibrations vary in magnitude and even location within the shoes, depending on the audio.
The average consumer probably wouldn’t wear these just for listening to music — it’s more likely the technology will also be incorporated into creating immersive gaming experiences.
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 at the University of Bayreuth in Germany are developing HaptiRead, a device that uses ultrasonic waves to project Braille onto users’ fingertips. As of 2020 it was still in the testing phase, but it has the potential to create a device that can make reading Braille a good alternative to other types of assistive technology.