How Tactile Feedback Works
Tactile feedback (also known as haptic feedback) is what happens when high vibration patterns and waves are used to transmit information to a user or operator of an electronic device. “Tactile” means “to touch,” which is appropriate here, considering many electronics and other products today are designed to relay information to their users via touch. Phones and tablets with touchscreens are both excellent examples of products that use tactile feedback. Devices that use vibrations, such as putting a phone on the “vibrate” setting are another example.
In the past, audio feedback in the form of bells, bees, and alarms were more common. Tactile feedback is a more modern approach to the same basic principle..
Devices that use tactile feedback employ some kind of vibrating component, such as a vibration motor or linear resonant actuator. This vibrating component is operated by an electronic circuit. Controllers usually get to decided when the device will vibrate, what pattern of vibration it will use, and more, to customize the experience.
Tactile feedback became popular a couple of decades ago, when it was realized that audio feedback could be improved upon by replacing it with devices that relied on the sense of touch. Not only are tactile feedback devices more accurate, they are more accessible to a greater number of people, as even those with hearing issues can easily and accurately use them.
As tactile feedback was tested at the top electronics companies, it was discovered that it improves the user experience by a vast amount. Thus, many everyday products are now being built with touch interfaces and displays. They are also highly desired by users because they can be customized to individual preferences, which is a huge improvement on the old way of doing things. Also, tactile feedback devices benefit companies by being cheaper to produce than audio feedback ones. With tactile feedback, both customers and companies benefit.
Using tactile feedback also improves on the performance of those using the devices that include it. With tactile feedback, information transmitted to the user is done so in a way that allows the user to give more concentration to their task. In fact, medical devices that use tactile feedback have been shown to help patients avoid missing their doses of medication.
Another example of improved accuracy is on virtual keyboards that allow typing on a touch screen. A short “button press” vibration effect lets a user know a computer, phone, or tablet has recognized a keystroke, and feels different under the fingertips from a “long press” effect. This subtle difference in sensations while typing allows the user to type with more accuracy, eases frustration in typing, and feels more like typing on a real keyboard or typewriter.
A good example of improved accuracy and better user experience with tactile feedback is with a car’s parking sensor. Older models would have the steering wheel vibrate if the car comes within a certain number of feet or centimeters of an object. Tactile feedback improves upon this by transmitting a variety of information to the driver about their environment by using different vibrational strengths and frequencies over a range of distances. The high, squeaky beeping found on older models is eliminated, and drivers can use the parking sensor accurately even in loud environments or if they have hearing issues.
Most people are familiar with tactile feedback through the use of their smartphones. Yet, a smartphone is just the tip of the surface of the real world applications of tactile feedback. Imagine how easy it is to confuse different sounds, or miss them altogether. This is an issue with the old model audio feedback electronics. With tactile feedback, the different vibrations, strengths, patterns, and feelings they give under the fingers or hands is easily accessible by everyone, and difficult to misinterpret. Our fingers can remember the tiniest details of subtle vibrational changes and immediately signal to us what they mean, because the fingertips are one of the most sensitive areas on a human being. It is like learning a new language, but much simpler, and with virtually no risk of error after a couple of lessons.
Tactile feedback is the future of electronics. Its applications are almost endless, and it is poised to improve life at both work and home, and even at school, for everyone.