Nintendo, Apple and forcing the future of tactile feedback

From the moment I first held an iPhone 7 at the September Apple event, I knew the Taptic Engine was something special.

Apple's second generation haptic feedback motor for iPhone — the one the headphone jack, in part, gave its life space for — is a substantial improvement over the previous one.Where before you could press firmly on your iPhone 6s display to trigger 3D Touch and get a reassuring "thump" in response, with iPhone 7 you get a broader, deeper, more sophisticated range of responses.Some of them are delightfully subtle: Spin through a date or time picker and you can feel a slight "tock" for each number. Thumb across alternate characters on the keyboard and you can feel a little "tick" for each accent.Others reaffirm the interface. Try to zoom too close or swipe too far, and a small "knock" will inform your finger that you've reached a limit. It's not the "right" feeling and not an exact match to the perfectly visualized rubber banding effect iOS has had since launch, but, in context, you barely notice. The sensory input is in sync, and hence amplified, and you know exactly, unmistakably, what it means.So, too, iMessage effects. If you've run the iOS 10 beta on a previous iPhone, you've seen the fireworks or lasers. But with iPhone 7, you feel them. The bursts or waves of light sizzle and rumble in your hand.It's not the sloppy, annoying buzzing other manufacturers have been implementing for years either. And it's not localized to only half the phone, so when you turn it sideways only one of your hands feels anything.No, Taptic Engine is haptics done right, and the potential is enormous.

Those core effects are still delightful and developers have begun integrating advanced Taptics into their apps as well. I remain incredibly bullish about the technology's future, especially now that word is filtering out about the Nintendo Switch:

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Based on Nintendo's event alone, the ice cube segment seemed... odd. It wasn't given any specific context. Reading the above, though, and the context is clear. Nintendo is taking haptics — simulated sensation — to yet new heights. (I can't wait for the teardown to see how they're doing it.)

It might seem like games or tricks right now, but if you take what Apple is doing and take what Nintendo is doing, and you push it out over time, the potential is remarkable.

The idea of picking up my iPhone 8 or iPhone 9 or whatever and feeling every key I press, every knob I slide, every cell I swipe, is easy enough. It's everything else that I'm looking forward to. Ice cubes in cups or marbles in a container are fun, but the interactivity, and maybe even accessibility, behind them are compelling.

For a long time interfaces were mainly pixels on screens, Braille terminals and a few other alternatives aside. Now voice interfaces are becoming more common. Tactile interfaces, thanks to technology like Apple's Taptic Engine and Nintendo's Joy-Con, will be as well.

(Especially in virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), which both companies may be interested in but neither currently ships.)

And as multi-sensory humans, the more affordances we have, the better.

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

  • Am I the only one who despises haptics with a passion? The one thing I can not stand about the iPhone 7 is the forced buzz when I press the home button. I know when I press the button, I don't need an annoying buzz telling me. In before someone mentions turing off the "System Haptics". That does not turn it off for the home button, which is what I find most annoying. Edit: Also in before the downvotes and "Yes, you are, your opinion is invalid, you must agree with the hivemind" comments.
  • Your opinion is completely valid and you not have to agree with any hivemind. But "despises haptics with a passion"? Really? You hate it THAT badly? hehe Just making fun.
  • Conversely I feel that some Apple enthusiasts are overly hyped over Apples Haptic engine. It's definitely not something I would miss if it weren't there. When reading Rene's description of it, I assumed it would be an experience changing addition. I honestly was unmoved by it nor would I feel bad if I no longer had it.
  • I don't know, it depends on the person. I started using the Haptic Engine with my Apple Watch, and it was really neat how it "tapped" you on the wrist when you got a notification, I never missed a notification with it. Now I've started using the iPhone 7, and I've gotten used to the Home button now, I find it quite nice, and the little haptic vibrations when you scroll through dropdowns or hit the edge of something are really nice to feel and make the device feel more responsive. I would miss it if it wasn't there. Just my thoughts
  • I just switched back from an iPhone 7 to an iPhone 5S for a period of time (long story). I had a 6S before the 7. I did miss it for about a day or two - but I didn't miss it b/c it added any functionality. I missed it just because it was different, and I already don't notice that I don't have it (sorry, poor grammar...). YMMV, but to me the haptic engine is just a novelty that adds little function *on a phone*. Edit: I'm also not saying it's bad, I simply don't see it adding as much to the experience as some are claiming.
  • It doesn't add any functionality, it just makes the phone nicer to use, the same way iOS animations don't add any functionality, it's just aesthetic pleasure. If you solely care about functionality with iPhone upgrades, then maybe the Taptic Engine means nothing to you. For me however, it's a subtle but nice feature which adds to the whole experience of the iPhone.
  • I don't see something buzzing in my hand as "nicer". I know when I press a button. Buzzing bugs me.
  • The iPhone 7 Home "button" isn't actually a button, so if the buzz wasn't there it you wouldn't feel it click
  • The iOS animation is part of the core experience, it buy time for the app to be loaded/render. Take away that iOS will feel sluggish and unpolished.
  • I'm not talking about an animation. I'm talking about the buzz.
  • I don't dislike it. It just isn't something I would make mention of if I'm talking about reasons I love my 7 Plus.
  • Not sure I feel as passionate about the topic as you, but first thing I do when setting up ANY phone is to disable any unnecessary battery-sucking vibrations or touch response, whether it be haptic or non-haptic. (If I could turn off the home button, I would.)
  • They barely drain the battery, otherwise they wouldn't be enabled by default. If you disabled the Home button you wouldn't know if you'd pressed the button or not, of course you'd see the screen change but it'd be really strange because it wouldn't feel like you're pressing it down. They're a nice addition, and part of what makes the experience of an expensive smartphone
  • They most definitely drain the battery. Silly to suggest otherwise. Doesn't make the "experience" for me.
  • If you turn them off you'll probably get at most 20 minutes extra, if that. If you really care that much about battery life, then you can turn off Bluetooth, Wi-Fi (when not using), Location services, Background app refresh, iOS animations, and turn your screen brightness down low. At this point though, ask yourself why you even bought a smartphone in the first place. All these features, including the haptic feedback, are part of the smartphone experience which you paid good dollar for, why disable them?
  • It's not for battery life. I just don't like it buzzing in my hand. I did just pay good money for it, so it should do what I want, not what Apple wants.
  • It's Apple's iPhone, they have the right to make a lot of it how they want it, not to mention this is the iPhone we're talking about. It can be restrictive in terms of customization. As far as I know you can turn off the haptic feedback except for the Home "button" which requires it to act as a button, otherwise you wouldn't get a "click" since it's not actually a physical button. If you want a phone that does exactly what you want, then you want an Android device, where you can customize pretty much anything to your heart's content
  • Honestly, it's not because of battery life. I just don't want something buzzing in my hand for no reason. I know when I pressed the dang button.
  • Not the Home button, since it's not actually a physical button so it requires the haptic feedback for the simulation of the "click"
  • First thing I turn off on any phone. Posted via the iMore App for Android
  • "That does not turn it off for the home button, which is what I find most annoying." You could try turning on Assistive Touch. Using the home button through that menu doesn't trigger the haptics.
  • I think the iPhone 7 Taptic Engine is one of its most underrated features. It does an excellent job of bridging the gap between software and the physical world.
  • +1. A lot of negative comments in this article, fair enough people are entitled to their opinion, but you can turn them off if you really don't like it. Obviously not the Home "button", otherwise you wouldn't be able to tell if you'd clicked it
  • Last I checked, Nintendo was doing haptic feedback since the late 90s with the rumble pack, even before PSX and when Apple was in its dark times. Haptic feedback in a phone, regardless of brand, came after console gaming. Posted from my Nexus 6P
  • Yes, and the Ford Model T came out long before the Tesla, but the Model T and the Model S are a world apart. Likewise the "rumble packs" of old Nintendo are a world apart from the Taptic Engine in the new Apple devices.
  • I had a little play around with the iPhone 7 when it first came out and the stand out thing for me was the haptic feedback. It was everywhere and it was horrible. The thing just felt cheap in my hand. Posted via the iMore App for Android
  • I don't know whether you're saying the haptic feedback made it feel cheap, or whether it just felt cheap in general, but that seems like an over-exaggeration in any case. You can turn off the haptic feedback if it really bothers you
  • The most painstakingly crafted phone on the market, which responds to your interactions with very precise and very deliberate taps, "just felt cheap"? I'm not convinced. Maybe you could elaborate on exactly how it "felt cheap"?
  • "(I can't wait for the teardown to see how they're doing it.)" Considering they gave the example of 3 ice cubes in a glass, I'm going to guess that they're using 3 vibration motors. Not sure if they're traditional rotary motors or linear actuators, though.