Taptic, haptics, and the body fantastic: The real Apple Watch revolution

apple watch heartbeat

Apple Watch users have complained that the heart-rate monitor won't work on their tattooed skin.

Credit: Apple

The next user interface requires your body. You will literally feel signals chock-full of timely, contextual data delivered from all manner of touchscreens, gadgets and wearables. It’s called haptics, and while it’s been around for years, most notably in game controllers, the Apple Watch is set to deliver this technology to the masses.

Haptic technology—haptics—uses force upon the skin to deliver real-time tactile feedback. These physical sensations are created by tiny motors called actuators. Done right, haptics can mimic the feeling of a pin prick by a wearable that tracks your blood sugar, simulate the plucking of virtual guitar strings on a tablet screen, or re-create the physical recoil of a phaser from your favorite game controller.

To date, the technology has been held back by a lack of real-time accuracy. This is why even though we are surrounded by billions of computer screens, widespread consumer use of haptics has been limited. Several companies are working to improve accuracy, so that you literally feel exactly what you expect when you tap an image on your screen or open a virtual door inside an Oculus game. Apple, however, has found a way to make haptics work now, leveraging what this tech can do in its present stage and clearing a path for making haptics a part of our everyday life.

The feel of Apple Watch

For its beautiful Watch, Apple constructed a modified iOS user interface. The company developed an innovative “digital crown” as an entirely new context-optimized input method. It is the haptics, however, that may prove most useful, possibly even revolutionary. This is not a bold prediction. Consider how Apple is already marketing its “most personal” device: “We found a way to give technology a more human touch. Literally.” “More immediate, intimate ways to connect.” “A new dimension to the way you communicate.”

Apple Watch Serenity Caldwell

Apple Watch is the touchscreen device that can touch you back.

Apple created what it calls a “taptic engine” to deliver physical sensations to your wrist. According to the company:

"The Taptic Engine creates a discreet, sophisticated, and nuanced experience by engaging more of your senses. It also enables some entirely new, intimate ways for you to communicate with other Apple Watch wearers. You can get someone’s attention with a gentle tap. Or even send something as personal as your heartbeat."

With surprisingly little fanfare, Apple has embraced a new user interface. When you pay with Apple Watch, you will both hear and “feel” a confirmation. A “gentle tap” on the device can be sent to another Watch wearer, who will feel the touch on their wrist. Is this a reminder? A nag? Longing? Answer: this is an entirely new form of human-to-human communications. It’s no surprise that Apple Watch “taps” can be customized for different people and different interactions.

What might app developers create using the taptic engine? Right now, that’s difficult to say. An Apple spokesperson told me the company is not yet ready to announce “any plans or details regarding the WatchKit SDK,” though hinted such plans would be forthcoming.

It’s easy to imagine the near-term possibilities. Perhaps a Watch weather app will zap you when you are about to leave the house without an umbrella. You may feel an annoying pinch as you pass the grocery store on the way home from work, a physical reminder to not forget the milk. An hour before lunch, a short series of hot taps could mean the (second-generation) Apple Watch senses your blood sugar is too low, discreetly reminding you to eat something.

Can touch this

A caress on the arm means something different than a stern squeeze of the shoulder, or a pat on the back. These minor physical actions convey a great deal: love, concern, gratitude, disappointment. As haptic technology evolves, our bodies are poised to become the next computing interface.

Fitness trackers, smartwatches, even Star Trek: The Next Generation-like wearables on our shirt will use haptics to alert us, remind us, and share something uniquely human, a secret between friends and loved ones, perhaps. These interactions will come in the form of vibrations, pressure, repetition, customized force, a distinctive sequence of touches and tactile feedback.

Last year, Apple was awarded a patent for a haptic feedback system for use on multi-touch surfaces. The patent listed a “virtual keyboard” as an example of how this system might work. That’s just one small possibility of what this technology will support, as this Disney research project reveals:

Game on

Forget buzzing controllers. Haptics for gesture controls, alerts, even pain, could revolutionize gaming. Just last month, Miraisens showed off its haptic technology for use in virtual reality gaming.

The firm’s small, coin-shaped device delivers real-time tactile feedback for users immersed inside a virtual 3D world, tricking the gamer into thinking they are pushing a physical button or actually feeling a gold coin or magic sword, for example. Since gaming is really just another mode of learning, expect haptics to spread to educational software, interactive exhibits and be used for teaching music, among other use cases.

Healing touch

It’s not all fun and games, of course. Haptics can replicate human touch. That means it can convey human emotions. The Babybe system was designed to transmit a mother’s heartbeat to her premature baby.

Premature babies are typically kept in isolation for the first several weeks of life. This is medically necessary but disrupts and potentially limits the emotional and physical bond between child and mother. The Babybe system helps mitigate this by using haptics to replicate the mother’s heartbeat, as if the baby was laying on her chest.

No doubt a similar system will be devised to enable grandparents to hug their grandchild from miles away, or allow traveling parents to stay physically connected with their children.

With computers surrounding us from the time we wake to the time we go to sleep, the potential use cases for haptics grows exponentially. We can’t know exactly where this technology takes us, but it’s already creating new modes of truly human interactions previously not possible. Our body is the new user interface.

Subscribe to the Best of Macworld Newsletter

Comments