Haptics. Or, Things We Don’t Know We Need Yet.

I just got an iPhone 7. Pretty impressed. It’s like a purring kitten in the palm of my hand. From what I read, I’m not the only one liking the haptics, or physical buzzing and shaking it performs with routine actions, like scrolling through menus or changing settings. A pleasant surprise.

 

Got me thinking about all the technology that’s crazy-sounding when it’s introduced and broadly embraced some time later. Here’s a few examples that popped into my head:

  • an electronic replacement for the yellow pages. And encyclopedias. And maps. Used to be if you needed to find something you got a big book and looked it up. Now we google.
  • one device that holds a thousand or more books in less space then a paperback.
  • the ability to instantly share everything we are doing with literally everyone in the world, via text, photo, or video. (I suspect hologram and virtual attendance are coming.)
  • the ability to pass judgement on all that everyone in the world shares. (Can you imagine a world without ‘like’ buttons?)
  • getting your DNA sequenced, because you can.

I tell my students that a successful business model satisfies an unmet need. Therefore, every new thing that’s adopted into everyday lives satisfies a need in a novel way. Often it’s convenience (electronic yellow pages and electronic reader), or being social (social media), or a quest for knowledge (DNA sequencing).

Another perspective: this article suggests that technology developers, in particular phone, app and social media developers, introduce new features that try to take advantage of users. Through manipulating basic emotions such as anxiety and loneliness, people may be addicted to their communication devices. We feed on the responses to our posts, mainlining the likes, sharing, and other general good vibes. There’s even science that suggests notification systems elicit a basic stress response if not answered.

I get it. The tone of a text message literally makes me jump. I have to assume it’s a survival reaction to new information in my environment: my instincts insist I assess it for fear it will devour me if I don’t. (Because test messages have been know to do that.) Funny thing is, I don’t recall such an urgent reaction to a ringing phone back in the day of landlines. Without caller I.D. or voicemail, if a call was missed, you had no idea who was calling about what. We managed to continue living, assuming if it was important, they’d call back.

Have we been conditioned to over-react to our electronic notifications?

A stated business goal for many device or app developers is improved user experience. This could be code for holding your attention longer. Considering that many social media sites make money from advertising, and the fee to advertisers is higher the more eyeballs are on the site, there is some logic to why companies want users to spend more time on their sites. How does increased convenience, which presumably relates to less time spend doing something, fit into this scheme.

Back to my iPhone. Some of the rationale1 for the haptics is to simulate the feel of pushing a button (electronic buttons1 have reacted that way since forever, so pushing buttons must be very important to people2). Eliminating push buttons is good for manufacturers because it makes for fewer moving parts, allowing a more reliable device as moving parts are harder to fix with a software update. The haptics made the earphone jack go away (space thing), which has the benefit of allowing less dust into the guts of the phone. The haptic functionality is open to third party developers who can dream up as many different uses for a wiggly phone as their imagination will allow – so there’s all kinds of new needs we don’t know we have to be satisfied.

When my shiny new phone first purred in my hand, I thought of artificial intelligence. Could this be some far-sighted approach to prepare us to accept machines as interacting members of the household, or society?

In this description of Apple’s haptic technology we learn that the devices are engineered to deliver signals to our fingers by sending misleading messages that mimic the push of a button. The technology uses knowledge of how our brains interpret forces directed onto our fingertips to simulate the button-pushing-feel. This is revolutionary. The visual and tactile are together, like they are in the real world, which makes what happens on my phone more real that ever before. Another reason not to put it down.

Haptics are currently used to give a more life-like experience to video games and to training simulation where touching a real thing is less than desirable, such as medical procedures and handling of dangerous substances3. I’m curious to find out what far flung way haptics will be a vital part of everyday life 10 years from now.

I’m so excited about this new technology, I’ve glossed over where I started with this post. Why do developers introduce new products and features that we don’t know we need or want, but can’t live without a little while later: A sinister plot to take advantage of our primordial urges and to get us to buy more stuff? Or visionary anticipation of the benefits of new technology?

Maybe I’ll ask Siri.

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1 Tapping a button, whether on a touch screen or through a cursor delivered click, makes the button do a flashy thing, which simulates a push of the button. Other surrogate reactions are noises.

2 The desire to push buttons stumps me from an evolutionary perspective. I’ve seen explanations related to curiosity and being in control, and testing rules but am not satisfied.

3 For example, when learning to handle radioactive waste or do open heart surgery.

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