What is Haptic Technology and How Does It Work?
If you have ever used a smartphone or game console, you have probably used haptic technology without realizing it. Haptic technology enhances the user experience by using simulated feedback that requires interaction with a device. Put simply, haptics connect virtual experience with the physical world through physical touch.
The word haptic originates from the Greek haptesthai, which means to touch. As touch is the most important type of human interaction, creating sensations within products is a great way to make them more memorable. Studies show that 94% of people can correctly identify objects through touch alone. But what is haptic feedback, and why do we need it?
History of haptic technology
Using haptic alerts in devices is nothing new. In fact, they have been a key component of products such as game consoles for at least 30 years. Sega was the first company to incorporate haptics into the arcade game Fonz, allowing players to experience a rumble each time they crashed into another player’s motorcycle. After concluding this enhanced the user experience, gaming companies attached haptics to console controllers through joysticks and steering wheels. Today, haptics are found in most smartphones and smartwatches and are so integrated into our lives that our devices would seem strange without them.
Humans are used to relying on sight and hearing when using electronic devices. But haptic feedback uses touch to interact with users. With haptics, our sense of touch also comes into play. And with the haptics industry estimated to be worth a whopping USD $4.8 billion by 2030, electronic device companies are cashing in on our need for sensory stimulation. Let’s take a look at the four main types of haptic feedback.
Perhaps the most familiar type of haptic technology, vibration is commonly integrated into smartphones and games consoles to enhance usability. Long or short vibrations burst across all or part of the console's controller to increase anticipation as users immerse themselves in the gaming world. As technology advanced, game designers realized they could isolate vibration to certain parts of a controller, providing instant feedback. In a racing game, for example, this could mean a short vibration at the top of the controller as a car accelerates and a long rumble vibration across the entire controller if it crashes.
2) Button stimulation
Buttons also include haptic technology. For example, as users turn up the volume on their smartphones, haptic technology creates touch resistance that feels like a physical object. This enhances usability and helps users monitor their actions. Users will become familiar with button stimulation over time, allowing them to control the volume using touch.
Built-in haptic buttons on smartphone apps also provide feedback. For example, one short vibration may indicate an online payment transaction is complete, whereas two vibrations mean it has failed. Users will eventually recognize whether or not a payment has been successful without waiting for visual confirmation.
Imagine holding a cup of coffee left to cool at room temperature. It probably feels noticeably warm and quite comfortable to touch. Now imagine the same cup of coffee is freshly boiled. How does it feel? It probably feels uncomfortable and painful as our skin’s receptors are triggered by high temperatures, sending pain signals to the brain.
Heat flow is paramount for thermal haptics. Heat is transferred quickly to simulate different temperatures and appears convincing to users. This gives the illusion of petting a warm dog or touching a cold door handle.
Imagine putting on a jacket. Instinctively, you can feel the additional weight of the item on your body, and it may feel tight or restrictive depending on the fit. Kinesthetic haptic feedback refers to the physical sensations felt in our joints, muscles, and tendons when we use or wear a certain object.
What are some applications of haptic technology?
Haptic technology devices are usually split into three categories: graspable, touchable, and wearable.
Graspable devices such as controllers, joysticks, or steering wheels create kinesthetic haptic feedback that is felt throughout our bodies.
The most common example of touchable haptic technology resides in most peoples’ pockets: the smartphone. Touchable devices like smartphones respond to movements such as taps, long presses, and rotations.
Wearable haptic technology produces contact sensations such as pressure, temperature, or vibration. For example, smartwatches vibrate as a reminder to increase activity levels, send push notifications, or congratulate users on reaching a specific step count.
Another type of wearable technology includes virtual reality (VR), such as exoskeleton devices. These devices are worn during games to provide a more personalized user experience, using electromechanical motors to create vibrations in certain areas linked to the in-game theme. Recently, Hong Kong-based researchers have created cutting-edge haptic glove technology that lets users feel sensations in their hands when they interact with physical objects. Moreover, the intensity of the sensations is adjusted based on the user’s individual nerve sensitivity levels.
How does haptics technology enhance the user experience?
We live such rich lives that the user experience is now less about the actual experience and more about our imaginations. The sense of touch draws on our emotions which is vital for successful product marketing. But haptics are not just used to create cool in-game effects, they are used in other industries too.
Medical companies can benefit significantly from the use of haptic feedback technology. For example, when used in laparoscopy instruments, doctors can use force feedback to ensure tissues are working normally and identify any abnormalities.
2) Automotive and aviation
Haptic technology is a handy addition to road vehicles, providing drivers with signals, warnings, and other communication alerts. In the aviation industry, haptics provides instructions to the pilot, enhancing the flow of communication for improved safety.
3) Professional training
Studies show that haptic technology is effective in delivering employee training. Using haptic technology to operate workplace machinery is safe and prevents motion sickness, enhancing the training process for employees.
The future of haptics
Technology designers have found ways to incorporate haptics into almost all new devices like laptops, smartphones, and wearables. In the future, we can expect to see haptic technology used more widely in smartphone applications, providing sensations to mimic a helicopter whirring or an insect buzzing. Virtual reality will also improve as designers use haptics to create a more realistic VR experience. Feeling the warmth of a hug or a snake slithering across our body will push VR wearables to new limits. Google’s range of wearable haptics is advancing by sewing conductive yarns into household garments and fabrics like curtains. This would enable users to directly control the temperature or movement through gestures and movements rather than a smartphone app.
Game designers go to great lengths to ensure users have the most vivid gaming experience possible. Haptic technology merges virtual and physical reality, creating simulations through heat, vibration, and haptic touch. Vibrations when a car crashes or accelerates make gamers feel like they are physically in the driving seat, made even more realistic by a graspable steering wheel. Haptic technology enhances the memorability of devices for consumers, helping create a competitive advantage for companies in all industries. We can expect to see more and more examples of haptics in a range of industries as technology advances, benefiting medical patients and improving safety for airplane or vehicle passengers.
Jeni is a translator and writer based in Taiwan. She is passionate about business development and loves helping companies enter international markets. She is fluent in English, German, and Mandarin Chinese, and combines these with her industry experience to provide practical market entry solutions.