Word has it that Apple is bringing Force Touch to its upcoming new iPhones. If it’s integrated across Apple’s range of products, the technology that powers Force Touch has the potential to enable developers to build smarter user interfaces and create apps that pack more functionality into the limited real estate of the screens of our favorite mobile devices.
Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Lorraine Luk reports that Apple plans to add its Force Touch technology to its next iPhones. The technology uses sensors to detect the difference between a light tap and a deep press. It represents an important innovation in user input, one that opens the possibility of novel user interfaces that more easily enable context-specific controls and commands.
Force Touch was introduced with the Apple Watch, and will appear on the forthcoming 12-inch MacBook. Luk reports that “people familiar with the matter” say that the technology is one of the changes that Apple plans for the versions of its iPhone due for release later this year. (Predictably, an Apple spokeswoman declined to comment.) The information reportedly comes from Apple’s suppliers, with whom the company tests a variety of technologies and designs that may not make it to the final product. Mass production of some of the components intended for use in this year’s new iPhones is reportedly slated to begin in May.
When it comes to the iPhone, Force Touch will influence the capabilities that developers build into their apps. Luk envisions a piano-playing app that could respond differently when its virtual keys are touched lightly or more heavily. Analyst Kylie Huang of Daiwa Capital Markets posits that Force Touch will work better on larger-screen iPhones, and may lead to innovative gaming platforms.
Big changes may be necessary as Apple tries to follow up on the tremendous success of the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus. After it introduced the two bigger-screen phones, Apple said that it sold 74.5 million iPhones during the quarter ended December 27 — a quarter that represented the most profitable quarter of any American company ever. The company isn’t expected to change the sizes of the 4.7-inch and 5.5-inch iPhones, and plans to keep the resolutions similar. Apple currently offers the iPhone in three colors — silver, gold, and space gray — and it’s reportedly testing a new option: pink.
TechCrunch’s Darrell Etherington writes that after trying out the Force Touch tech in person, he’d be surprised if Apple didn’t plan to use it across all of its upcoming products. He reports that the Force Touch trackpad on the new MacBook acts and feels like a “normal,” mechanical Mac trackpad, despite the fact that its motion is actually limited to less than a nanometer of travel, and replaces the downward motion with a fine side-to-side haptic motor “agitation” that registers as a press. You can press once for a normal click, then press a second, deeper time to access a secondary function or perform some other action without needing to right-click or to open a menu. And each time, the technology tricks you into thinking that the trackpad is moving down and clicking as it traditionally would.
On the iPhone, the technology could allow for new control capabilities for games, and enable much more sophisticated responses from apps like Garage Band, which Etherington notes basically uses an iOS device’s motion sensor to register big differences in tap pressure on a virtual keyboard. Apple demonstrated how Force Touch on the new Mac trackpads enables handwriting input with subtle pressure detection, a capability that could open up new possibilities for drawing and painting apps on an iPhone or iPad. You could deep-press on a word when browsing in Safari to call up the relevant dictionary or Wikipedia entry, or deep-press an address to see its location on a map.
Etherington points out that the Wall Street Journal report did not specify whether Apple will add the same haptic feedback to the iPhone that it incorporated into the Mac trackpad, but he posits that it may be time for Apple to integrate haptic feedback for things like the keyboard on its next iPhone. The taptic hardware that Apple currently uses is thin, and almost in a league apart from traditional haptic systems in the subtlety of its performance.
CNET reports that current trackpads use what Apple called a “diving board” design, where the top edge of the trackpad is fixed in place to enable the rest of the surface to be clicked. The Force Touch trackpad features four sensors that enable the trackpad to be clicked anywhere, including along the top edge, where the current trackpad doesn’t always register clicks. Haptic feedback, such as that felt on Android phones or Windows Phones, is created by small vibration motors. When a button is pressed, the smartphone vibrates. Apple’s new taptic engine represents a big step forward for haptic feedback.
Apple has called Force Touch “the most significant new sensing capability since Multi‑Touch,” and that could very well prove to be true. The new mode of input is an advance akin to the right click of the desktop computer era. Like Force Touch, the right click enabled developers to pack more functionality into a piece of software without layering on heavy user interface elements like more menus. Instead, they could add context-specific options. When developers begin adding context-specific press menus for iPhone or iPad apps, they’ll be able to create smarter, more capable apps that afford easier access to tools and options that have traditionally been accessible only by tapping and swiping through menus.