What Are Haptics?

How haptic feedback helps you interact with tech

Haptics technology uses vibration, motors, or other physical experiences to simulate the sense of touch and deliver tactile experiences. This is done 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, any time you interact with a piece of technology that provides some kind of simulated physical feedback (as opposed to a physical switch or button), you're using haptic technology.

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

While haptics have 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 can be generated by a number of different technologies, including instruments that create vibration, force feedback "rumble packs", air gusts, and even ultrasound beams that can't be heard, but can be felt.

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 perform an action 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 physically respond your touch.

Another good 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 will trigger 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

Some common kinds of haptic feedback are found in these devices:

  • 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 notifications and turn-by-turn directions also use haptics.
  • Arcade game controls: One of the oldest widely used kinds of haptics was in arcade driving and flying games. For those games, haptic technology built into the steering wheel or flight stick was used 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 is being used to replicate the experience of the click. An actual click isn't haptics, since haptics, by definition, simulate tactile experiences.
  • Medical training devices: Surgeons and dentists are increasingly being trained using sophisticated simulators that include physical, haptic feedback to make the training closer to working with actual humans.
  • Video game console controllers: Most modern video game consoles like the PS5 include at least some haptic technology in their controllers in the form of vibrations triggered by in-game events.