Haptic technology progressed relatively slowly for decades. In the 1990s, companies were already trying to create consumer products that allow users to receive tactile feedback from devices and “feel” virtual objects. But the technologies being developed were largely confined to company research labs, and consumers didn’t have much exposure to practical products ready for the marketplace.
Haptic research company Immersion Corporation began developing a haptic technology in the 2000s for virtual reality gameplay, which consisted of an exoskeleton structure users could wear around their hands. Immersion’s vice president of research and user experience, Manuel Cruz, said the cost of manufacturing the product prevented the company from moving forward with it, because only universities and research labs could afford it.
What Is Haptic Technology?
Haptics is a broad term describing technologies that a user experiences through their sense of touch. Common applications include the vibrations of phones and game controllers, but tactile feedback can also be created using alternative methods like sound waves and wind.
“It is always about cost, the power it’s going to use and how big it is,” Cruz said about haptic tech. “Those are the main problems that we always have in pushing this technology into the market — because at the end of the day, the devices need to sell.”
Because of this hurdle, haptic technology still seems to be waiting for its breakthrough moment. Guidelines and best practices are still hard to come by, and companies venturing into haptics are often making up the rules as they go.
Dame, a sex-toy company, not only had to figure out how to create pleasurable haptic experiences for their users, but also determine what haptic behaviors their products should avoid. For instance, designers for Dame’s line of vibrators had to figure out the safety limits around acceptable levels of heat generated by running internal motors. The company often looked to other industries for ideas on safety standards. When users reported that a prototype’s vibrations made holding the toys uncomfortable in their hands, engineers looked to the construction industry for guidance.
“There’s no standard for sex toys, but for construction workers handling machinery and equipment, there’s a standard for what is allowed by OSHA so that it doesn’t create nerve damage or capillary damage,” said Amanda Couto, Dame’s lead mechanical engineer.
The development of haptic products is unlike many other types of technology research. The success and failure of haptic products depends entirely on feel — something that can’t be measured in a unit test. Companies rely on designers and engineers to guide the development process with their own evaluation of haptic products, and they also rely heavily on user testing. At Dame, employees research different motors, evaluate and take apart competitors’ products, and incorporate a lot of feedback from users.
“The biggest challenge is knowing when you’ve asked enough people, from enough diverse backgrounds, diverse sex lives, the right questions — where you feel good that you’ve created a solid product for most people,” Couto said.
The process of creating new and distinct sensations is another inherent challenge of haptic design. Cruz from Immersion said the ideation and construction processes can be difficult to bridge, because every sensation needs to be translated into physics — into concepts like vibration frequency and magnitude.
Recently, engineers at Immersion were tasked with creating a haptic sensation to represent sunshine. Cruz said the solution they settled on was to create gentle and gradual vibrations.
“The type of haptic effects that we’re used to — for example, your phone vibrating when you’re receiving a call — is very abrupt and very strong,” Cruz said. “But in this case, it was something that is increasing in magnitude and giving you the sensation that something is nascent, like coming from nothing into something.”
The field of haptics itself feels like it’s in this nascent stage. Haptic components in gaming consoles have become more widespread and sophisticated, and the technology has also crept into consumers’ mobile devices and personal computers. Haptic tech is entering many different industries, and uses techniques such as vibrations, air manipulation and ultrasonic waves to achieve a wide range of sensations.
To give you a sense of how the field has evolved, here are 12 examples of companies and products that are using haptic technology to innovate across a variety of fields, from game development to enhancing accessibility.
Video gaming seems to be the industry that currently has the most to gain from haptic technology. Gaming consoles led the way for haptics to be introduced into consumers’ lives, and video game haptics have come a long way.
The perfect implementation would look something like Star Trek’s Holodeck — a completely immersive virtual reality, with tangible virtual objects and the ability to walk around freely without worrying about running into walls. But while we wait for that, a variety of haptic devices that help users forget their bodies are still in the real world will have to do.
Sony: DualSense Controller
How It’s Using Haptics: The PlayStation 5 controller is capable of precise vibrations that complement in-game scenarios.
It’s impossible to mention haptics today without talking about the PlayStation 5’s DualSense controller, introduced last November. PlayStation has come a long way since it released its first haptic gamepad, the DualShock controller, in 1997. The DualShock’s “rumble” technology used weights attached to spinning motors to create strong but repetitive vibrations.
The DualSense instead uses electricity to vibrate small metal coils, which result in much more precise vibrations. This technique allows game developers to match vibrations more closely to in-game situations. For instance, players experience different sensations when their avatars run across different types of terrain, such as grass, pavement and sand.
The DualSense also has adaptive triggers, which game developers can program to provide resistance under certain circumstances when players engage the triggers. This can make gameplay feel more realistic, for instance by mimicking a gun jamming or giving the right resistance when the avatar is pulling an object.
How It’s Using Haptics: bHaptics’ haptic suits provide players with vibration-based haptic feedback for a more immersive virtual reality gaming experience.
Korean startup bHaptics creates a line of haptic suits that can be paired with compatible virtual reality games for an added layer of realism. The suit includes a vest, armbands, controllers and a headset, all of which have components that transmit vibrations to the player. When the player is hit during first-person shooter games, for instance, the suit vibrates accordingly.
The biggest current hurdle for bHaptics is increasing the number of games it’s compatible with. Since bHaptics isn’t a mainstream virtual reality platform, game developers still have to make the decision of whether the effort of adding custom haptic feedback for bHaptics is worthwhile.
But game developers seem to be warming to bHaptics, and more games are getting added. Realistic, immersive experiences are especially prized in virtual reality gaming, which means it won’t be long before more companies will be creating their own versions of haptic suits.
Ultraleap: STRATOS Inspire
How It’s Using Haptics: Ultraleap’s ultrasonic haptic feedback uses sound instead of vibrations.
Ultraleap sells a haptic system that uses ultrasound instead of vibrations to transmit haptic sensations. The device is made of an array of small ultrasound speakers, which send ultrasonic waves through the air to collide at specific focal points. Users can move their hands through the space in front of the device and feel the landscape of focal points, which are experienced against the skin as pressure, creating the haptic sensations.
The STRATOS Inspire also suffers from not being part of a hardware standard, which means many developers aren’t writing applications for the system. But the system demonstrates that ultrasound can be a viable method of delivering haptic feedback to users. Its technology may eventually be incorporated into standard virtual reality gaming systems to provide players another way of interacting with the virtual world.
Mobile and Personal Computers
When it comes to phones and computers, haptic tech is not only fun, but it also serves the important purpose of guiding users and helping make digital interactions more clear. Apple is still dominant when it comes to haptic innovations for personal devices, but competitors are beginning to catch up as it becomes apparent that haptics are here to stay.
Apple: Taptic Engine
How It’s Using Haptics: Apple uses linear resonant actuator technology, rather than weighted motors, to provide haptic feedback in mobile devices and laptops.
Haptic feedback in mobile devices has become more precise, which has made it more useful for improving the mobile experience. Apple uses haptic feedback to make it more obvious when certain types of actions have occurred, such as successful confirmations or errors.
Apple’s Taptic Engine was originally introduced in 2015 in the Apple watch, and incorporated later into the iPhone. It uses the same technology as PlayStation’s DualSense controller, with electric currents feeding a resonating coil that creates precise and easily controllable vibrations. Games on iOS, such as the racing game GRID Autosport, uses the feedback to transmit realistic sensations to the user.
Apple’s standardized engine allows haptic feedback to be easily incorporated into apps, paving the way for developers to experiment with haptics in games and other applications.
Lenovo: Haptics Touchpad
How It’s Using Haptics:Lenovo has joined Apple in rolling haptic trackpads out to its latest laptops.
Another haptic innovation Apple introduced in 2015 was the haptic trackpad on MacBooks — instead of making the trackpad one big button, Apple used haptic feedback under an immobile trackpad to imitate the feel of a button click.
Switching to a haptic trackpad is an advantage because it decreases the likelihood of a physical breakdown. A mechanical button moves up and down countless times over the course of its life, which can result in the trackpad breaking. Haptics eliminate this mechanical process, extending the life of the device.
Apple’s patent on this innovation prevented other companies from quickly creating their own versions, but Lenovo’s new ThinkPad now shares this capability, thanks to hardware company Sensel, which supplies the trackpad for the laptop.
A lot of wearable haptic tech is geared toward gaming, but it can also be used for other types of entertainment, such as listening to music. Some even use haptic sensations as a way to boost mental and emotional well-being.
Apollo: Wearable Wellness Device
How It’s Using Haptics: The Apollo device uses haptics for haptics’ sake — to create a soothing sensation that helps users feel calm and relaxed.
It may look like a smartwatch, but Apollo’s wearable device is more concerned about its user’s emotional health than displaying apps on its surface. Apollo can be worn on the wrist or ankle, and it uses vibrations to help users feel relaxed and energized.
Reviewers have reported that using the device actually did make them feel better, in some cases helping them fall asleep more easily. The device is controlled from a phone, where users can select from a suite of vibration patterns and intensities.
The company cites university research trials as the basis for the product and the different modes of vibrations offered. Apollo compares the device’s vibrations to deep breathing — both help create a meditative sensation and help users feel sane and grounded.
Razer: Nari Ultimate Haptic Headphones
How It’s Using Haptics: Diverts the most intense sounds into vibrations felt through the headset.
A few years ago, I attended an orchestra concert with a very brass-heavy program. I thought the brass was too overwhelming, but my friend loved it. “Isn’t it great when you can feel the vibration in your body?” she asked.
Jessica might be just the type of person who would enjoy a pair of Razer’s haptic headphones. While technically a gaming headset, it doesn’t require special programming to use, and works just as well for listening to Spotify.
The headset turns intense sounds, such as in-game explosions or a strong bass, into vibrations felt against the device. For those who want to experience what it’s like “wearing a pair of subwoofers on your head,” haptic headphones might just do the trick.
DropLabs: EP 01 Haptic Shoes
How It’s Using Haptics: These haptic sneakers transmit vibrations that match whatever audio you’re currently enjoying.
If you enjoy haptic headphones and are looking to round out your haptic gear, there are also DropLabs’ haptic sneakers, which can match any audio with corresponding vibrations felt through the shoes. The vibrations vary in magnitude and even location within the shoes, depending on the audio.
The average consumer probably wouldn’t wear these just for listening to music — it’s more likely the technology will also be incorporated into creating immersive gaming experiences.
In the haptic tech world, sex toys have a pretty long history. The vast majority rely on dependable weighted rotating motors, but some devices make innovative use of air flow as well.
Womanizer: Air Pressure Haptics
How It’s Using Haptics: Instead of vibration, this would-be vibrator uses air pressure.
Most vibrators live up to their names, but the Womanizer is a sex toy that uses a different kind of haptic technology. It works by manipulating airflow, helping users reach orgasm with minimal physical contact with the device.
Users describe it as a “sucking” sensation, but the device is actually changing air pressure within the stimulation area at different speeds and intensities, creating a sensation of suction.
How It’s Using Haptics: Rotating motor haptics is still the standard when it comes to creating a powerful vibration.
The Eva is quite a small device, which made it tricky to design as it still required a powerful enough motor. Couto, Dame’s lead mechanical engineer, said the designers had to take into account the size of the motor, the position of the motor within the silicone casing, and the thickness of the silicone between the motor and the user.
“Because it’s inside of the silicon housing, then it will dampen some of the vibration strength,” she said. “And if you are already operating with a weaker motor, you need to put it as close to the body as you can so that people feel something — otherwise they’re going to be upset.”
Rotating motors are still used to create vibration, rather than the resonating coil vibrations found in mobile phones and the DualSense controller, because vibrators value power over precision.
Just as in mobile phones, haptics can be used in other industries as a way to give users more information and guidance. That can be as simple as a clean, crisp vibration when users succeed at a task, or as complex as creating new types of accessibility technology.
Audi: E-Tron Haptic Steering Wheel
How It’s Using Haptics: Haptic feedback allows drivers to keep their eyes and focus on the road, rather than their screens.
Audi’s 2021 electric vehicle has haptic feedback technology incorporated into a couple of features, including the vehicle’s touchscreen and buttons on the steering wheel.
Haptic feedback on car interfaces help drivers keep their eyes on the road while using other features. Touchscreens are especially difficult to navigate while driving, but haptic feedback can let the driver know if a button was successfully selected, saving an extra glance back at the screen.
HaptiRead: Ultrasonic Braille Display
How It’s Using Haptics: Researchers are developing an ultrasonic way of projecting Braille onto users’ fingertips.
Modern devices include many accessibility features, such as screen readers that can read text and descriptions of the user interface out loud to users. But reading Braille can still come in handy for users who have low vision.
Refreshable Braille displays do exist — they have mechanical pins that are raised and lowered into holes on a flat surface, and users move their fingers across the surface to read the text. But these mechanical displays can be clunky and slow.
That’s why researchers at the University of Bayreuth in Germany are developing a device that uses ultrasonic waves to project Braille onto users’ fingertips. It’s still in the testing phase, but it has the potential to create a device that can make reading Braille a good alternative to other types of assistive technology.