The Real Haptic Technology

posted by on 25th March 2015, at 3:51am

Recently Apple introduced a new MacBook that ships next month. This MacBook is by far an engineering statement over anything else, signalling the direction of future portables for the company. With the new MacBook comes an innovation called Force Touch. Force Touch has already made its way into the reworked 13” Retina MacBook Pro for those wondering.

So what is Force Touch? Force Touch is Apple’s first use of haptic technology to hit the market. Haptic technology simply provides a physical response when something is triggered whether it be a touch or you getting shot while playing Call of Duty. Haptic technology supposedly exists in phones already but using the phone’s vibrator doesn’t really provide an elegant experience. Force Touch uses haptic technology elegantly to respond to a users click on the trackpad without the trackpad moving at all. The only physical movement of the trackpad is a small amount of flexing of the glass itself. Apple accomplishes this with electromagnets, you can watch more about the design of the new Macbook here.

In addition to providing feedback when clicking on the trackpad Force Touch has a variety of uses inside the operating system. It’s used for a Force Click, a click in which the user presses down with more force than a normal click. This shows some additional information such as a definition for a word or the ability to create a new event in your calendar. It can also be used to vary the zoom speed in maps or the fast forward speed while watching a video. The most obvious case of course is pressure sensitive drawing, which can be utilized in Preview or the systems markup utility. Finally, when moving an item around such as an image in a document you will receive feedback via the trackpad when it snaps to another image or to the edge of the page.

While Apple has introduced this technology in two devices currently it’s a no brainer that this technology will make its way to all laptops and probably the external trackpad and mouse. The same technology will exist in the Watch coming out next month as well. This means we’re also likely to see it in at least one of the upcoming iPhones and iPads released this fall. The story going forward will not be that haptic technology has made its way into Apple products but rather that developers will have a whole new form of interaction to explore and utilize in their applications.

Until recently I was of the belief that Microsoft would be first to release a device that utilizes haptic technology. Microsoft has always had the grand vision of how our lives will be simpler while Apple has had the implementation. Microsoft hit a home run with the Xbox One and Kinect which lead me to believe that the Surface or next Windows Phone would have a novel form of haptic technology. Haptic technology is a very important pillar of our advancing interactions with computer technology. We may have the ability to create stunning visuals on screen, we may be able to augment reality with HoloLens or something similar but we can not touch the world created on our screen or HoloLens without haptic technology. While it may seem as though Apple has the jump on this technology their implementation is focused on today for the end user. The interesting part comes tomorrow with what we can ultimately accomplish with haptic technology.

The most obvious entry point for haptic technology is on the smart phone. Granted for a while Android devices and select Windows devices have been able to vibrate when you press a button, this vibration is the same as the vibration used when receiving a notification which makes the vibration in itself useless. Smart haptic technology, however, can greatly improve usability. The first and most obvious entry point is the ability to press buttons and feel that button as though it were physical. This brings the smartphone back to the era of physical buttons which allowed for use without looking at the screen. More interestingly, objects on screen can be modeled, imagine moving an image or other generic rectangle around. The user could feel when it has snapped into its specified housing or when it hits the border of a screen. This would be great for applications that focus on physical rehab, young children’s exploration apps, and the Clear to-do list app that I use. As with the previous button example it allows for exploration without visual cues and more importantly tablets become more accessible to those who are visually impaired.

Haptic technology also has the potential to allow for new forms of interfaces to be created so we can finally kick the old fashioned keyboard and mouse to the curb. The haptic design required for technology of this level is a ways off. The current haptic technology we have must iterate in a meaningful way, future haptic technology must be able to create a physical sensation as the user moves their hands over a haptic sensing surface. This essentially means we must reach a level where the haptic sensing surface can create the same sensation a person feels now when they run their fingers over a keyboard or a rough piece of wood. Now that we have established the capabilities of this future haptic technology, let’s talk about what it can do.

The first and most obvious example is a virtual keyboard. A keyboard that looks like an elongated tablet display, except when it turns on the user sees a traditional QWERTY keyboard. While typing the user would be able to feel the dips of the keyboard and receive feedback when pressing a key as happens today. The difference being, the keyboard would have no moving parts. With this comes infinite customizability for different layouts and languages. What’s more, using this same customizability it would also be able to represent braille for the visually impaired.

Taking a haptic keyboard further we could come to a point in which a QWERTY keyboard isn’t always needed enabling a dual display computer. This computer would have the desktop display as we have now but would also have a slightly angled display at our hands. The angled display at our hands would be used for QWERTY keyboard input when text is required but could also display supplementary information. An example of this would be the web browser. Do you always need your keyboard while browsing a web page? No. Assume you are reading an article on your favourite news website. The desktop display displays full text as it does now but unless keyboard entry is required there would be no QWERTY display at our fingertips. Presented at your hands would be a high level overview of the structure of the page. A table of contents would also be visible if the author included one. You would be able to select specific areas to jump to by their table of contents entry or by scrolling (with your fingers) the high level overview. If a segment appeared interesting and it needed to be larger on your main display all that would be required would be a double tap of the relevant paragraph. When a comment form is presented there would be a rectangular box indicating the comment form is capable of text input. Tapping this would bring back the QWERTY keyboard enabling text input for the comment.

While I have provided physical world examples of where haptic technology can be used, it can also be used to great effect in the virtual or augmented world. With Windows 10 Microsoft announced HoloLens, an augmented reality tool. Of various demonstrations within HoloLens Microsoft focused on Minecraft. Haptic’s could be applied to Minecraft by feeling resistance when placing or moving objects. More seriously, moving away from Minecraft, HoloLens could be used to aid in surgical training. Right now training is done in a real operating room and by combining augmented reality and haptic technology it is possible to allow surgeons to train on organs that were too complex to train on before. Augmented reality combined with haptic technology also reduces the repeated cost of operating room time and surgical supplies. Medical training using augmented technology and haptic technology is already underway with expensive haptic devices but with haptic technology coming to the consumer market it is only logical to expect prices to fall.

Overall haptic technology won’t change our lives overnight. It’s likely to change our lives over time in much the same way that the progression from 640×480 256 colour displays to 1080p (or larger) full colour displays has over the last 25 years. Haptic technology is something that the general public will become increasingly more aware of. It is my hope that I have provided you with a wider appreciation of haptic technology, where it can take us, and that it’s not limited to making button presses feel more real.

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