Touch & Tap

Apple has a lot going on right now with the Apple Watch, new MacBook, ResearchKit, Apple TV, and of course WWDC right around the corner. However, they’ve managed to adopt a new technology really quickly that I think is the most exciting thing happening at the moment technology-wise. That thing is Force Touch and the Taptic Engine.

First introduced with the Apple Watch, Force Touch is a new technology that let’s touch sensitive surfaces detect and recognize varying amounts and types of pressure. For example, force touching the screen of the Watch lets the user access contextual options. Additionally, the Taptic Engine is a new haptic feedback mechanism that can provide very realistic feedback. An example of this is when you get a notification on the Watch and it taps your wrist to let you know.

Just to clarify, the Watch doesn’t just vibrate like your iPhone. It creates a realistic sensation of a downward force on your wrist.

Most recently, Apple have added these technologies to the trackpad of the new MacBook (and also the MacBook Pro with Retina Display). Now, instead of the trackpad moving up and down when you click, it just senses the force that you are applying, and then uses the Taptic Engine to make it feel like the trackpad is moving.

This may not sound very interesting. On the surface, it just replaces a moving trackpad with the sensation of a moving trackpad. But these technologies open up a world of possibilities. Apple is already exploring some of those on the Mac. For example, the trackpad can register “Force clicks” and perform contextual actions. If you force click a file, you will get a quick look of that file. If you click a file and apply a little more pressure, your Mac will know that you want to drag the file. Drawing on the trackpad is now pressure sensitive.

The Taptic Engine also comes into play. It can provide a tactile response to action on screen. Alex Gollner writes about how when dragging a video clip in iMovie to its maximum length, the trackpad will let you know you’ve hit the end using physical feedback. I haven’t used the new trackpad yet, so I can’t speak for it myself, but from what I’ve heard it is uncanny how realistic and accurate force touches and Taptic feedback is.

I think that these technologies are really important for Apple. I have no doubts that we will see them on the next iPhone and iPad, and that has some huge repercussions. Alex has this to say in the same article:

Perhaps we’ll look back and realise that the iOS 7 update removed borders from buttons because one day Apple user interfaces will be able to be felt as much as seen, and button text labels will feel more distinctive than button borders under our fingertips.

Can you imagine? Tapping a button in an iOS app feeling the sensation of pressing a real-life button is huge. Not to mention tactile responses when dragging and selecting in apps, or feeling textures in games. And Force Touch will give us a whole new way to interact with iOS. Plus, force sensitive drawing could make the iPad the best drawing tablet on the market.

Apple’s touch and tap technologies came out of nowhere fast. I don’t think people quite understand yet how important this will be to changing digital interfaces. We have always been able to use touch to interact with our devices, but they have never really been able to use touch to interact with us. I am very excited to see how we will be using our devices in a year or two.