What Is Haptics and Why Should You Pay Close Attention to It?
Haptics has successfully become part of our lives to an extent when we don't even notice it. Remember the last time your smartphone vibrated when you beat an especially tricky level in your favorite game? That’s a basic example of haptics in action - a technology that transmits tactile information during your interaction with a software application.
But what is haptics exactly, how does it work, and where can it be used apart from entertainment? We answer these and other questions below.
What is haptics? Explain like I’m 5
When asking “what is haptic technology”, we can turn to TechTarget and see the following definition: haptics is the science of applying tactile sensation to a user’s interaction with software.
When a user interacts with a software product, it provides certain feedback in response to user actions. For example, if a user successfully completes an action, the app may display a “success” message - or it can also vibrate. In this way, a user receives an additional confirmation of the success (or failure) of their actions.
While the most well-known examples of haptics are probably game controllers, the technology is also used in healthcare, aviation, and even space. Considering that the sense of touch is the second most important way for humans to understand things (with vision being on the first place), no wonder this technology is so valuable. Some of the biggest benefits of using haptics are:
- Improved user experience: haptics adds an extra layer of immersion for users, especially within the field of entertainment;
- Remote management of machinery: haptics works great when paired with robots and can be used for remote management and monitoring in complex environments;
- Better user accessibility: haptics helps users better understand what’s happening. For example, long-term vibration might indicate a phone call and if a user is too distracted to look directly at the phone, they will certainly feel the vibration.
In general, haptics contributes to creating a holistic immersive experience and assist users in understanding the software that they use. Now let’s see the main types of this technology.
Types of haptic technology based on usage
There are various types of haptics-equipped devices, based on how they are used. The three most common types are:
- Graspable devices: a prime example is a joystick. These devices generate kinesthetic feedback (i.e., resistance or vibrations) and can be used in gaming and even in manipulating robots remotely.
- Touchable devices: think of a smartphone surface. With these devices, the feedback is generated as a response to a user’s touch.
- Wearable devices: VR gloves are a great example. Wearable haptic devices simulate a sensation of contact and are often used to mimic real-world sensations.
As you can see, haptics can be used in various devices, depending on the use case. This brings us to the question: how does this technology work?
How does haptics work?
To receive haptic feedback (i.e., a sense of vibration), tactile actuators (tactors in short) are used. A tactile actuator is a small device that creates a specific type of motion. This motion is then used by electronic devices and software applications to respond to users’ actions.
There are several types of actuators, but we’ll look at the three most common ones.
Eccentric Rotating Mass (ERM)
An ERM actuator belongs to the group of traditional actuators and is a magnetic DC motor. This motor spins an eccentric unbalanced weight and in this way, the needed vibrations are created. ERM actuators produce motion across two axes.
The main benefits of this device are wide availability, maturity of technology, and its low cost. However, it consumes a lot of power and has a relatively slow start-up.
Linear Resonant Actuators (LRA)
An LRA actuator is also a traditional actuator but functions differently than an ERM. The LRA actuator functions like a speaker and uses a magnetic coil to push a mass up and down to create vibrations. Unlike ERM actuators, LRA actuators produce motion in one axis.
LRA actuators deliver a slightly better output than ERM ones and are widely used in smartphones, portable navigation devices, and touch screen tablets.
Piezo Haptic actuators
Piezoelectric Benders (another name for Piezo actuators) are a more recent type of actuators. They use piezoelectric material placed in a cantilever beam configuration to generate the needed vibration. Piezo actuators are well-known for having a fast response time but the downside is that these actuators require a higher voltage for driving signals than ERM and LRA actuators.
What is haptic feedback and what are its main types?
We’ve already answered the “what is haptic feedback” question: the haptic feedback meaning implies the use of vibrations and touch to enable the interaction of software with a user. And as there are many various haptic devices, there are also various types of haptic feedback, each having its own specific use cases and benefits.
Vibrotactile feedback is one of the most common and simplest forms of haptic feedback. It uses vibrostimulators to apply pressure to user’s skin and targets our skin’s definite receptors. The most well-known examples of vibrotactile feedback in devices are smartphones or game controllers.
This feedback type is easy to be implemented, highly cost-effective and is easy to be controlled and powered. However, vibrotactile feedback affects a limited range of physical sensations and might be hard to be minituarized properly.
Force feedback dates back to the late 1960s and is one of the oldest types of haptic feedback. Unlike other feedback types, force feedback stimulates not only skin but muscles and ligaments too. As for force feedback devices, they come in two types: biometric and non-biometric. Biometric devices are designed to imitate parts of a human body: think of an exoskeleton as an example. In this way, it can be rather challenging to design them since they have to replicate the movement of human limbs.
Non-biometric devices (e.g., a steering wheel in an arcade game) are easier to develop as they don’t have to resemble parts of a human body. These devices often belong to the category of resistive devices, meaning that they restrict user movement to a certain extent.
This feedback type is probably the most diverse and interesting one. Electrotactile feedback applies electrical pulses to a user’s skin, impacting not only it but nerve endings too. Depending on the frequency and intensity of the stimuli, this feedback type takes many forms. The factors that shape the sensations include voltage, skin type, waveform, contact force, and many others.
In this way, electrotactile feedback is great for simulating real-life situations and environments and is widely used in medical training and teleoperation.
Ultrasonic feedback emits high-frequency sound waves to simulate the sensation of real-life objects and impact the user’s skin. This feedback type uses time reversal acoustics, which implies that the emitter’s location may differ from the target (e.g., skin surface). This allows for transmitting the feedback to large surface areas of a user’s body.
Another great thing about ultrasonic feedback is that it doesn’t require the use of wearables and thus allows more freedom of movement for users. However, this independence from devices comes with a drawback of being more costly than other feedback types.
The most prominent haptics use cases
While we are all familiar with such haptics applications as game controllers or smartphones, the use cases for this technology are far more diverse and interesting. Below, we collected the biggest examples.
While we are used to hearing about machine learning or AR in healthcare, we don’t really hear much about haptics in this industry. However, COVID-19 has changed the focus.
As a result of the pandemic, many patients and doctors were not able to interact face-to-face, meaning, an opportunity to physically examine the patient has become very limited. And since COVID-19 resulted in the rise of telemedicine, many began thinking: what if we start paying more attention to haptics, making it part of the telemedicine services?
There are several ways how haptics can be used in medicine:
- Performance of physical remote exams: with the help of the haptic technology, doctors can, for example, palpate a patient’s abdomen and monitor their reaction;
- Performance of neurological exams: by applying certain type of feedback on a patient, doctors can monitor how they react;
- Smart prostheses: with the help of haptics, patients can gain better control over their prostheses and more freedom of movement;
- Training: due to artificial resistance and relaxation, created by haptics, medical students can train for surgeries in almost real-life conditions.
As you can see, haptics can greatly aid both medics and patients, bringing more accuracy and personalization to medical services.
Being a highly demanding field, aviation calls for the use of advanced technologies that would make the pilot’s job easier. Paired with Extended Reality (XR), aka the combination of Augmented and Virtual Reality, haptics brings in several significant benefits to aviation.
First, it enables immersive flight simulations, during which pilots can experience real-life sensations (e.g., turbulence) through the use of haptics. Second, these simulations can focus on emergency response training, general training, and cabin crew training.
Since haptics overall is very intuitive and is easily understood by the majority of users, it can also facilitate the piloting process as the pilot will know exactly what they are doing and how. And the use of haptics in training greatly improves the quality of the process as trainees are fully submerged in the process.
The use of haptics in space is actually not so new, and there have been numerous successful experiments and missions. In 2015, astronaut Andreas Mogensen remotely operated a rover and its robotic arm to manipulate objects in space. The robot was equipped with force feedback haptics and, due to the sensation of resistance, the astronaut was able to successfully move the objects to needed locations without even seeing them.
This opens many exciting possibilities for space exploration, as haptics allows astronauts to remotely operate robots in potentially dangerous or unknown environments. This means, astronauts can explore space more safely, contributing to the study of the world around us (and providing new inspiration to Ridley Scott and Denis Villeneuve).
When talking about haptics, we can’t forget about its use in the entertainment industry, primarily in game controllers and joysticks. Haptics adds an extra immersive layer to the overall user experience, thus engaging users in a highly effective manner.
Haptics allows players to feel the impact of their actions when playing games, e.g., resistance when firing a weapon. In mobile games, haptics is usually used to notify players about success or failure of certain actions and does so through vibrations.
One more big use case of haptics is its application to the metaverse, which has been gaining traction in recent years. Before getting into more details, let’s first refresh our knowledge on the metaverse.
A metaverse is a three-dimensional virtual space where users can communicate and perform various actions, from business-related to more general ones. The metaverse is based on the AR/VR technologies and usually has its own internal currency. In other words, it’s like Sims - but in real life (a bit ironic, isn’t it).
Now, haptics is considered to be the next big thing for skyrocketing the metaverse popularity and use. With its implementation, the metaverse users will be able to interact with each other and with the objects on a whole new level due to the sensation of touch. And this will be a huge benefit and a valid argument for people to engage with the metaverse.
Examples of haptics devices in real life
We’ve already talked about it, but let’s review one more time - below are the most common haptics devices used across industries:
- Game controllers: provide vibrations as feedback to user’s actions and enable a more immersive experience for players;
- Ultrasonic speakers: provide another layer of interaction for users by “touching” (sensing) the sound waves with the skin;
- Smartphones: these devices use haptics to shape user experience and make it more intuitive, thus guiding users through the interface more effectively;
- Wearables: same as smartphones, wearable devices provide users with certain notifications on information;
- Steering wheels: due to the intuitive nature of haptics devices, they allow drivers to focus more on the road instead of paying close attention to the steering wheel.
And these are not all examples. Haptics can be incorporated into a wide array of devices and can be paired with various technologies - though it probably works the best with Extended Reality and Robotic Process Automation.
So what is haptics? Is it really the future? Most probably. The haptic technology is relatively simple yet fascinating as it opens brand-new opportunities for industries and businesses. The use of haptics adds a new dimension to the way users interact with the digital world and can greatly reimagine certain processes. Considering the speed of digitization and the readiness of many businesses for the adoption of new technologies, we might soon see haptics become a new reality, and it’s really interesting to see what it will bring.
Irina is a professional copywriter with over 7 years of experience in this domain. She loves creating compelling and informative copy that provides readers with all the needed information. Irina is also a frequent contributor to different blogs and websites across different domains.View all articles by this author.