What Are Haptics and How Do They Work?

Haptic feedback simulates tactile experiences using vibration

Haptic technology uses vibration, motors, or other physical experiences to simulate the sense of touch and deliver tactile experiences to digital products. Its purpose is to provide richer and more complex interfaces and experiences to the user of that piece of technology.

What Does Haptic Mean?

Whether you know it or not, you've probably used haptic technology. Smartphones, game controllers, and touchscreen car stereos, to name just a few, all use haptics to deliver richer, more sophisticated, and more engaging user interactions.

Put more simply; you're using haptic technology any time you interact with a piece of technology that provides some simulated physical feedback (as opposed to a physical switch or button).

Haptic feedback is increasingly used to connect virtual, onscreen experiences to the physical world and make digital interfaces more natural and lifelike.

While haptics has become increasingly common since the mid-2010s, the technology has been around since the 1960s and saw its first large-scale uses in 1980s arcade games.

Photo of a hand with touchpoints and red lines on each finger to simulate a user interface
Richard Newstead / The Image Bank / Getty Images 

How Haptic Technology Works

Haptic technology works by combining something that happens in software with a corresponding physical experience. Those physical experiences are generated by many different technologies, including instruments that create vibration, force feedback "rumble packs," air gusts, and even ultrasound beams that you can't hear but can feel.

To make this easier to understand, let's look at a specific example. The iPhone has a built-in Taptic Engine, Apple's custom haptic feedback system. When you do something in software that's tied to a haptic experience, such as long-pressing the screen or pressing the Home button, the software triggers a specific vibration pattern in the Taptic Engine that makes the phone seem to respond to your touch physically.

Another excellent example of haptic feedback is in a driving video game. If you're in the arcade or your console controller has haptics, when you drive off the smooth road, the game software triggers the force feedback engine in your controller to shake and vibrate, simulating a rough off-road driving experience.

A Few Examples of Haptic Alerts and Touches

These devices have some common kinds of haptic feedback:

  • Apple screens and mice: Apple has used haptic feedback in its 3D Touch screen technology since the iPhone 6S and its Home buttons since the iPhone 7. It also uses haptics in its Magic Mouse and Magic Trackpad.
  • Apple Watch notifications and scrolling: The Apple Watch uses haptics to create the little "clicks" felt when scrolling using the Digital Crown. The vibrations used for alerts and turn-by-turn directions also use haptics.
  • Arcade game controls: One of the oldest widely-used haptics was in arcade driving and flying games. The manufacturers used haptic technology built into the steering wheel or flight stick for those games to simulate rough roads or choppy flying.
  • Car dashboards: Touchscreen car stereos and other car dashboard interfaces use haptics to simulate the experience of pressing buttons and moving switches on older vehicles.
  • Flight simulators: Forget video games; the actual machines used to train pilots when they're not in the air use haptic technology to simulate various flying conditions.
  • Laptop touchpads: If your laptop touchpad clicks when you press it when the laptop is on but doesn't move at all when it's turned off, it uses haptics. In that case, a haptic system replicates the experience of the click. An actual click isn't haptics since, by definition, haptics simulate tactile experiences.
  • Medical training devices: Future surgeons and dentists are increasingly training with sophisticated simulators that include physical haptic feedback to make the training closer to working on actual humans.
  • Video game console controllers: Most modern video game consoles like the PS5 include some haptic technology in their controllers in the form of vibrations triggered by in-game events.
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