Apple files for iPhone/iPad haptic feedback system patent. Already explores manufacturing options

Ever since Apple released their first iPhone, we’ve been waiting for them to figure out how to add haptic feedback to the multi-touch interface. The UI on iPhone and iPad is great. But ability to feel a key press when you are typing, or getting feedback when you tap on an icon/scroll through a list – will make it better.

While Samsung, Nokia, RIM and HTC has been adding vibration feedback to their touch screen handsets for years, Apple stayed away from haptics all this time. Insisting that its Multi-touch UI is already the best around anyway – which was true enough.

But that was just Apple being Apple. Keeping the cool new technology under wraps, until they figured out how to really make it work. And, if their latest patent application is any guide, they may be pretty close of doing just that.

The new patent app describes Apple’s take on the haptic feedback implementation which can work in iPhone, iPad or Mac trackpads. And, what’s even better – it covers the ways how to manufacture haptics enabled touch devices.

Apple’s new system includes an array of piezoelectric actuators dispersed beneath the iPhone glass, providing localized vibration feedback as you move your finger around the display. These localized vibrations allow you to “feel” various UI elements on screen.

The actuators may be placed in a grid, next to capacitive sensors driving the touch UI, or beneath them. In other implementation – the haptic actuators could be made in the form of strands extending across the screen.

Apple also talks about the force sensors just under the haptic feedback layer, that can feel how hard you are pressing the screen,help identify the gestures and your intent, and calibrate the proper vibration response.

None of the things described above are particularly new or original. I’ve seen various ways of doing haptics for touchscreens described and shown off over the years. Most of them included piezoelectric actuators, placed in one form or the other beneath the display. All the demos or actual working gadgets I tried, where not very good on haptics, and didn’t come close to imitating the feel of touching/pressing the real thing. And you’ll probably have to have an engineering degree to figure out how Apple’s version is better.

What’s more interesting – is that in the same patent application, Apple also covers a number of manufacturing techniques, how to mass produce devices with the haptic feedback. And it makes little sense to put resources into manufacturing R&D, before you have a working system you want to make. So it seems that Apple may have finally figured out how to do haptics that it will want to put into its own gadgets.

The question now is – how long will it take them to iron all the bugs out, and make haptic feedback part of the next iPhone design. Would we have it in iPhone 5, or will have to wait few more years?

Author: Stasys Bielinis

While I like to play with the latest gadgets, I am even more interested in broad technology trends. With mobile now taking over the world - following the latest technology news, looking for insights, sharing and discussing them with passionate audience - it's hard to imagine a better place for me to be. You can find me on Twitter as @UVStaska'

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