What Are Haptics on iPhone Devices and Why Do They Exist?

By: William Harris & Zach Taras  | 
If you've gotten a new phone in the last few years and wondered why it buzzes a little more than your old one, you probably have the haptic feedback on. Fiordaliso / Getty Images

With the introduction of iOS 16, the Apple added haptic keyboard functionality to its groundbreaking iPhone. While not the first device with haptic feedback, Apple's high design standards and widespread popularity mean that more people than ever have the option of using haptic technology with their smartphones.

That said, what are haptics on iPhone devices? And what are they designed for?


What Is Haptic Feedback?

Haptic feedback (also called tactile feedback) is the term for technology that uses a physical responses — usually a vibration pattern — to indicate a certain effect or function on an interactive device. Most people are familiar with the "vibrate" feature on their cell phones or smartphones.

However, haptic feedback takes this a step farther.


Rather than a series of vibration patterns that notify the user of incoming calls, new voicemails or texts, haptic feedback occurs in the form of more subtle vibrations when the user touches the phone screen.

Haptic feedback also varies based on the specific function being toggled, enhancing user interactions. This can start with a small vibration that occurs when the user is typing, and it can differ in intensity or duration, depending on the task.


A Brief Overview of Haptic Feedback in Smartphones

Samsung first launched a cell phone with haptics in 2008. Dubbed the Anycall Haptic, the phone featured a large touch-screen display just like the iPhone. But it did Apple's revolutionary gadget one better: Enabling users to feel clicks, vibrations and other tactile feedback.

In all, it added 22 kinds of vibration patterns to the user interaction.


As with all consumer tech, the race for market share is always running. Many cell phone companies, including LG, OnePlus, Google's Pixel and Samsung, have jumped on the haptics train. Enhancing user experience is a seemingly never-ending grind, and so it's likely that even more options are forthcoming.

Where Does the Word 'Haptic' Come From?

Haptic is from the Greek haptesthai, meaning to touch. As an adjective, it means relating to or based on the sense of touch. As a noun, usually used in a plural form (haptics), it means the science and physiology of the sense of touch.


How Does the Haptic Feedback on iPhones Work?

iPhone haptics are relatively straightforward, from a technological standpoint. A small motor in the body of the phone provides the vibration pattern. This is controlled by the software, which allows the user to turn haptic feedback on or off, depending on their preference.

One notable drawback has to do with battery life. Providing tactile responses requires battery energy, as the small motor must be operated each time the haptic feedback is toggled. If you prefer a tactile sensation each time you use the keyboard, you might notice your battery life is shorter.


However, disabling haptics is an option. It's probably a good idea to try haptic feedback first and decide if it's the kind of thing that you want in your phone experience.

How Is Haptic Feedback Studied?

Scientists have studied haptics for decades, and they know quite a bit about the biology of touch. They know, for example, what kind of receptors are in the skin and how nerves shuttle information back and forth between the central nervous system and the point of contact.

As a field of study, haptics has closely paralleled the rise and evolution of automation. Before the industrial revolution, scientists focused on how living things experienced touch. Biologists learned that even simple organisms, such as jellyfish and worms, possessed sophisticated tactile feedback systems.


In the early part of the 20th century, psychologists and medical researchers actively studied how humans experience touch. Appropriately so, this branch of science became known as human haptics, and it revealed that the human hand, the primary structure associated with the sense of touch, was extraordinarily complex.

­Haptic Feedback in Virtual Reality

Computer scientists have had great difficulty transferring the basic understanding of touch into their virtual reality and augmented reality systems. Visual and auditory cues are easy to replicate in computer-generated models, but tactile sensations are more prob­lematic.

It is almost impossible to enable a user to feel something happening in the computer's mind thro­ugh a typical interface. Sure, keyboards allow users to type in words, and joysticks and steering wheels can vibrate. But how can a user touch virtual objects inside the virtual world?


How, for example, can a video game player feel the hard, cold steel of his or her character's weapon? How can an astronaut, training in a computer simulator, feel the weight and rough texture of a virtual moon rock?

­Since the 1980s, computer scientists have been trying to answer these questions. Their field is a specialized subset of haptics known as computer haptics. While far from full virtual reality, advances in tactile feedback have been made in recent VR interfaces.


Helping the Blind and Partially Sighted People Feel a City

Computer scientists in Greece are incorporating haptic feedback as accessibility features on touchable maps for people with visual impairments. To create a map, researchers shoot video of a real-world location, either an architectural model of a building or a city block.

Software evaluates the video, frame by frame, to determine the shape and location of every object. The data results in a three-dimensional grid of force fields for each structure.


Using wearable technology that includes a haptic interface device, a blind person can feel these as tactile sensations and, along with audio cues, get a much better feel of a city's or building's layout.

The Importance of Haptic Technology

In video games, the addition of haptic feedback is nice to have. It increases the reality of the game and, as a result, enhances user interactions. But in training and other applications, haptic interfaces are vital. That's because the sense of touch conveys rich and detailed information about an object.

When it's combined with other senses, especially sight, haptic feedback dramatically increases the amount of information that is sent to the brain for processing.


By offering "tactile confirmation," there is an increase in information for the user. This reduces user error, as well as the time it takes to complete a task.