Forget Force Touch trackpads — I want a pressure-sensitive iPad Pro

I got to spend just twenty minutes with the new MacBook trackpad on Monday, but it was enough to leave me feeling wowed, impressed, and a little bit disoriented.

Apple's long-in-the-making Force Touch trackpad uses haptic feedback to make your finger feel like it's depressing a button, even though the trackpad itself doesn't move. It's a sheet of glass. It doesn't have a button, it doesn't all depress at once — it does not move at all. But it feels like you're clicking. It feels like your finger is sinking into that immoveable glass and accessing deeper click levels than have ever existed on a trackpad.

Now, think about what Apple could do with that technology on a computer made entirely of glass.

What haptic engines do, in a nutshell

If you're confused by Apple's trackpad sorcery, here's the deal: There's a sheet of glass. Under that sheet of glass are a series of motors that, when you press against the glass, react with different vibrations depending on how hard you're pressing. Press lightly, you may get a light click or no click at all. Press down hard, and you may go through three or four click levels to result in a different action than your traditional single-click.

It feels like you're clicking, but you're not. Your finger is just pressing into stationary glass while the motors send little vibrations to make you feel like you're moving the trackpad downward. It's bizarrely wonderful to interact with, and opens up the door for more "Taptic" (haptic + tapping) feedback on Apple's other product models — the iPhone and iPad, for instance.

A haptic iPad would be incredible for business

I've never loved typing on the iPad: Tapping on glass, though doable, feels inherently stiff and cumbersome. To combat this, smartphone-maker BlackBerry tried a different approach, making the entirety of the BlackBerry Storm screen clickable — but it didn't work out so well in practice.

Apple's not going to make a 7- or 10- or even 13-inch iPad screen clickable. But Force Touch and a pressure-sensitive Taptic engine could make it feel like they're clickable, and that makes all the difference.

Imagine an iPad where, as you type, each key feels like you're pressing it into the screen. Apple could theoretically make a virtual keyboard feel like the sensation of typing on a real keyboard, just with haptic feedback. Let alone other interactions — buttons becoming tappable, new vertical gestures unlocking different kinds of pop-overs and secondary menus, and more.

Artists rejoice

Of course, the haptic feedback is only one part of the puzzle for me: Apple's Force Touch works because not only is the trackpad hooked up to haptics, but it senses pressure. "Pressure-sensitive drawing" is highlighted as a feature on the MacBook page, though it only shows Preview's signature field as an example for the time being.

But in my brief testing with that field, the trackpad is indeed pressure-sensitive. Perhaps not to the level of a Wacom tablet, but it's precise and feels natural — and that's just with a quick test using my fingers. On a trackpad, this is exciting; on an iPad — with, perhaps, accompanying Apple Pen? — this becomes crucial.

The iPad has never had screen-based pressure sensitivity. Apps and styluses that provide it use software trickery to imitate pressure, but it's often variable between apps and inconsistent during the drawing process. The iPad's screen was designed for capacitative touch, not styluses or pressure, and it shows.

But an iPad screen designed specifically for pressure-sensitivity would go a long way in the artistic community — as well as anyone looking to write or annotate. Imagine being able to actually feel the texture of what you're sketching through haptic feedback, and control your line width. On the music side, imagine being able to feel virtual keys on a piano, or physically feel a record scratch. There's a lot of possibility here, and it's incredibly exciting on all fronts.

Will it happen? (And when?)

From the outside, the jump from Taptics in the Watch to MacBook seemed absurdly fast — just six months since the Watch's features were announced. But Apple has been working on this technology for years; the company just hasn't been happy enough with it to include in a shipping product.

That said, I'm still not sure Apple has the Taptic engine working properly in a full iPad screen just yet. It might make more sense to include it in the iPhone first before tackling the larger screen, as The Wall Street Journal rumored on Tuesday.

Even if engineers have figured out the 10- or 13-inch glass screen hardware puzzle to their liking, there's still software to think about: Haptics work because they're programmable, and there's an awful lot of programmable content in iOS. Do all buttons get haptic feedback? Does Force Touch make an appearance for contextual menus? Do developers get access to APIs for the Taptic engine to include their own haptic feedback?

Lots of questions, with few answers: Such is the speculation game. But I have hope. After all, those iPad Pro rumors make a lot more sense when you add in haptic feedback and full pressure-sensitivity in the screen.

Serenity Caldwell

Serenity was formerly the Managing Editor at iMore, and now works for Apple. She's been talking, writing about, and tinkering with Apple products since she was old enough to double-click. In her spare time, she sketches, sings, and in her secret superhero life, plays roller derby. Follow her on Twitter @settern.

  • Serenity, meant to ask you this a while back after you were talking about the stylus rumor in an iMore show I listened to: Have any of you reviewed a ModBook Pro? This is a MBP taken out of the unibody and fit into a new case and touch sensitivity added to screen, making it into a Pro tablet for Pro users. They even offer buy & try and leasing. It's expensive, but, wondering if apple's larger iPad will cause this to lose it's marketing edge.
  • glass lacks the necessary semi-conductive properties to function as a computer. :P yes i'm being silly.
  • Yes. It must also have dedicated stylus support.
  • I want this to happen so bad. :D Sent from the iMore App
  • Considering your user name, I would imagine this would be huge for you. Have you ever drawn on a Surface Pro? I think they have pressure-sensitive screens.
  • I purchased a surface pro 1st gen and the pen input was clunky as hell. The accuracy of the pen hitting the screen was never prefect. Maybe that has been fixed in Gen 2 and 3, but it was a huge turnoff for me.
  • Go to the Microsoft Store and take it for a test drive, see if it suites your needs.
  • What I really want is gesture recognition built into keyboards. In all the MacBook lines and in the wireless Apple Keyboard. I'm sick and tired of all the wasted motion moving between keyboard and pointing device, whether it's a built-in trackpad or Magic Mouse or Magic Trackpad. All I'd need is simple gesture recognition similar to that in the Magic Mouse. 1- 2- 3- and 4-finger left/right and up/down swipes. And maybe another gesture for "next/previous text input field on the current page." And I don't care whether the gestures are performed while lightly brushing the keyboard or with both hands hovering over the keyboard. (And, come to think of it, why not have two-handed gestures as well, with up to 10 fingers?)
  • My first thought is that is way, way too complicated...then I thought, damn, thats a great idea! A lot of my reaching for the mouse is for simple scrolling - my old PC laptops had that little nub joystick in the keyboard, but that was a bit clunky. If I could simply swipe my fingers on whatever keys they happened to be resting on to scroll around...well, I wouldn't use much in my coding/illustrating part of the workday, but if they could weed out the false positives, I would use it all the time when browsing.
  • The big problem with this idea, is that the trackpad is a "button" whilst the iPad is a screen. Functionally, you could put the same tech in the iPad, but it would only make the entire screen act like a single button. That isn't helpful at all. The pressure level detecting could change things up quite a bit, but it won't and it probably can't be implemented in the same way in the iPad as it is in the trackpad. It would also add to the thickness of the iPad tremendously.
  • Not the way I use a trackpad. I have "Tap to click" turned on in Preferences -> Trackpad. To drag and drop I double-tap and drag. The trick with that is the second tap of the double-tap is tap-and-hold. I've always used Tap to click. Just didn't like having to click the trackpad.
  • Same here, I preferred tap to click.. first thing I did when I got my new rMBP, turn on tap to click...
  • Have you seen the inside of an iPad? it's mostly air. They got Taptic into the lower half of the new Macbook, which, that lower half is THINNER than an iPad.. Getting it into an iPad is not only possible.. when you go from 10" to 12.9" size, you get even more room. Very possible, space wise in in a iPad. Now the iPhone? ummm.. that I'm wondering where WSJ got that idea.. their is really no room in that baby...
  • Not how the new trackpad works. It's not a button at all. It's a glass screen with a bunch of haptic sensors underneath it that can react no matter where you press. Very similar to early Multitouch technology; just adding vibration + pressure awareness on that glass.
  • Well you have actually tried it and I haven't so I have to give you the benefit of the doubt, but as described, it still doesn't sound like it would work on the iPad to me. I'm much more interested in stylus support, and in just the pressure sensitive part of this invention myself. Haptic feedback is a bit of a gimmick IMO and not actually useful. Perhaps this implementation is different form all the others, I will have to try it in the store when they ship. Give us a stylus that has pressure sensitivity, and that turns off multi-touch sensing when it gets close to the tablet so that we can use tablets in the same way as we would a block of paper, and I think you'd have a technology revolution (to put it mildly). Haptic feedback has yet to be anywhere near as interesting and/or useful IMO.
  • Didn't we see Apple submit a patent on this type of technology a few years back? I think this is the future of haptics in iPhone/iPad, rather than just using the not very useful slight vibration that Android uses. I'll be really interested to see how it feels in-person. Ok, I found the patent I was thinking of:
  • I want this so bad; been holding out since the iPad 3 and can't hold on for much longer...
  • Sigh... same here. iOS 8 works well on iPad-3, but is very punitive on app switching, especially if Pages, Numbers or Keynote are open. I terribly ache for an upgrade. Thanks rumormongers!!
  • Haptics and pressure sensitivity would be great - if they could couple that with some way to get wacom-tablet-like pinpoint accuracy on the capacitive touchscreen, that would be a MONSTER addition to the iPad.
  • I would consider going back to apple I'd had multi window and the ability to use a pen without a mushy tip. I use a Samsung note phone and tablet now, and I hate Samsung, but I love the pen and multi window enough to keep buying them.
  • iPad specific issues with current Force-Touch/Taptic solution:
    Pressure can only register for a single point on screen - not multi-pressure. If there are multiple zones that can accept pressure software would have to prioritize and restrict input.
    With typing you would have to be sure you lift your fingers after every stroke if pressure was involved (more click on heavier presses). If it is just a multi-touch trigger then it should track well but with a static response which wouldn't be an issue for typing but might be for musical/expressive applications.
    Taptic feedback would not be localized. Not sure how noticeable that would be in practise as you should only have a single finger in contact at a time.
    This doesn't address being able to detect key boundaries via touch. Without creating a physical deformation you would need very localized vibrations that you could feel with a light touch.
  • Forget the MacBook, I want the iPad Pro!!! Sent from the iMore App
  • How big are the guts of this new trackpad. Everybody assumes that this technology can fit into an iPhone or iPad. But where?
  • Avec la mise à jour, toute entreprise possédant un site Web mobile--et pas seulement ceux avec apps--peut fournir des notifications push pour les appareils mobiles. Cette stratégie longes aux utilisateurs de l'écosystème de Google tout en brouillant les frontières entre les sites Android, mobiles et des applications mobiles.
  • Can I point out that the blackberry storm 2 did this? The first one the whole screen clicked yes. The second one the screen didn't depress. It had four haptic sensors, one on each corner under the LCD and it did exactly what you described. Only this was years ago. And worked phenomenally. It was my favorite phone.