What is haptic feedback?
Haptic feedback is the use of touch to communicate with users. Most people are familiar with the vibration in a mobile phone or the rumble in a game controller – but haptic feedback is much more than that. Heather Macdonald Tait, Director of Marketing Communications at Ultrahaptics, explains why.
Human beings have five senses, but electronic devices communicate with us using predominantly just two: sight and hearing.
Haptic feedback (often shortened to just haptics) changes this by simulating the sense of touch. Not only can you touch a computer or other device, but the computer can touch you back.
Haptic feedback is a mode of communication rather than a specific technology or application. It’s nothing less than an entirely new way for machines and humans to communicate.
Haptic feedback (sometimes described as ‘force feedback’) first entered game controllers in the late 1990s and is ubiquitous today.
Creating haptic feedback
Technically, touch is part of the somatosensory system. This encompasses a huge variety of sensations, not just tactile sensations but also things such as pain, temperature and the position and movement of our body in space.
The somatosensory system includes at least ten specialised types of receptors. Each sends different information to your brain: one type sends information about vibration, one about pressure, one about pain, and so on.
These receptors are all over the surface of your body, and inside it, too. The average adult has 3 million pain receptors alone.
Your somatosensory system sends a continual stream of rich information to your brain, information you rely on to perform even the simplest actions.
Simulating the somatosensory system in its entirety is a huge challenge (according to Microsoft, “many orders of magnitude larger in complexity” than sight or sound). However, as the widespread use of simple vibrotactile technology in mobile phones and gaming shows, even limited use of haptic technology can be very effective.
While the tiny devices that create vibrations in a mobile phone are probably the best-known haptic technology, there are many other ways to simulate touch. Some, such as Ultrahaptics’ ultrasound technology, create tactile sensations in mid-air and do not even require the user to be in contact with a physical surface.
Today, haptic technology ranges from the vibrations in a mobile through wearables, controllers and mid-air haptics all the way up to very high-end exoskeletons and full-body suits that look like something out of Ready Player One (and which, today, are largely confined to military and industrial applications).
Haptic technology is entering everything from automotive to location-based entertainment, from marketing to military training. In 2018, “haptics” officially entered the Merriam-Webster dictionary, and the haptics industry is projected to be worth over $3 billion by 2028.
Communicating with drivers using haptic rather than visual or audio feedback has been shown to improve safety.
Even a brief overview of haptic technology would require an entire blog post on its own. But, more importantly, why do product designers add haptic feedback at all?
Why add haptic feedback?
Visual feedback is used for many different purposes, from a flashing warning light to a desktop interface to the immersive experience of a VR headset. It’s the same with haptic feedback: there’s a rich spectrum of ways in which it can be used.
In our bodies, the somatosensory system is involved in everything from establishing a sense of presence, to emotional connection and wellbeing, to enabling us to explore and interact with objects, to providing 360° sensory feedback. At Ultrahaptics, we’re already seeing our technology used by customers and academic partners to achieve very different things in different applications.
In automotive, haptic feedback allows manufacturers to create non-visual modes of interaction, reducing the amount of time drivers take their eyes off the road. However, in marketing then it’s the emotional component of touch that is important: adding haptic feedback is proven to have a significant impact on user engagement.
Adding haptic feedback to motion-controlled interactive digital signage increases dwell time, engagement and recall.
When added to user interfaces, haptics is all about reducing task completion time and improving accuracy. (Creating multisensory experiences that incorporate haptics is also increasingly recognised as central to natural interaction and the next generation of UX design.)
The role of haptic feedback in VR, in contrast, is largely about increasing users’ sense of presence. This isn’t simply about making virtual bubbles feel like real bubbles popping on our hands. Haptic feedback allows storytellers to create experiences that we can’t have in the real world: to feel a dragon’s breath, touch a ghost or cast a magic spell.
Ultimately, haptic feedback is a tool for product designers
I could give many more examples (education and training, industrial, medical, smart home…). The real point, though, is that haptic feedback is best understood as a new tool in the hands of product designers, whatever sector they are in and whatever they are trying to communicate.
Haptic feedback in VR increases users’ sense of presence and agency.
Haptic feedback is a tool that both enhances audio-visual communication and opens up the possibility of creating new products and markets. It’s a tool we are only just starting to understand the capabilities of, with a language we are still writing the dictionary for.
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And hold on tight. It’s going to be one hell of a ride.
Heather Macdonald Tait is a specialist in technology marketing and was Ultrahaptics’ employee #5. She is passionate about engaging children in STEM subjects and increasing diversity in the tech industry. She can be contacted here.