May 3, 2021
Qualcomm products mentioned within this post are offered by Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. and/or its subsidiaries.
High-definition (HD) haptics has become an emerging premium feature for smartphones as demand for immersive and responsive tactile experiences continues to grow among consumers. One of the leaders in this transition to premium haptics is Berlin-based deep-tech company, Lofelt.
We had a chance to sit down with Gwydion ap Dafydd (CTO) and Daniel Büttner (CEO) to learn more about HD haptics on mobile.
What are the different types of haptic feedback and how do they work?
There are several types of haptic feedback, such as force, vibrotactile and electrotactile. We gain important information about our surroundings through haptic feedback. We perceive motion (kinesthetic feedback) through our muscles, joints and tendons. We sense pressure, temperature, texture and vibrations (tactile or cutaneous feedback) through a variety of mechanoreceptors located in the skin. This tutorial by hapticlabs.io provides a comprehensive visual overview of the different types of haptics.
Most haptic technologies developed for touch-based smartphones and tablets, gaming peripherals, and devices focus on providing vibrotactile feedback. Depending on their frequency, those vibrations stimulate one or more types of mechanoreceptors embedded in the skin, providing different kinds of information.
What is HD haptics?
HD haptics has become synonymous with high-fidelity haptic playback, which provides more than just monotonous on/off vibration. The term signifies crisp, detailed haptic feedback that gives devices a premium feel. HD haptics improves notifications and confirmations, like ringtones or interface feedback. And it can significantly improve accessibility by providing more nuanced touch feedback.
The killer applications where HD haptics truly shows its full potential are multimodal experiences like mobile gaming and video streaming. HD haptics adds a new level of depth and realism to virtual experiences. Users can feel footsteps on hard or soft surfaces, revving car engines and impacts. Because many mobile games are also played with the audio off, HD haptics provides a useful feedback modality for creating a much more engaging experience.
However, HD haptics is not yet defined by an industry-wide specification and for the past year, Lofelt has co-led the creation of such standards and specifications in the Haptics Industry Forum (HIF).
How is HD different than standard haptic feedback?
The Motorola pager created a well-known application for buzzing haptics with the sole purpose of getting the user’s attention – silently (more or less). Today, nearly 100% of smartphones have some form of standard haptic feedback capability that can turn a vibration motor off and on, like the Motorola pager. But, only a number of phones extend their haptic capabilities toward HD content experiences.
From an experience point of view, standard haptic feedback often feels crude and monotonous. The on/off vibration without amplitude control, in particular, doesn’t allow for fine control that is required for a more subtle experience. On top of fine vibration control, HD haptics provides crisp and sharp clicks that expand the haptics vocabulary and are essential for premium button clicks or game effects like impacts or footsteps.
Some devices have not been able to deliver HD haptics because of the APIs they use. We recently published detailed research on the differences between haptic tech stacks on mobile platforms.
Do users want or need better haptic feedback?
While there have been many studies showing the user value of haptics, we believe users want a premium mobile experience – not just basic haptic feedback. Along with next-generation graphics and audio, haptics is an important part of building a stand-out mobile experience.
In public spaces, users are mostly operating their phones with the audio turned off. The touch sense provides a powerful and personal way for the device to communicate with the user. Once people feel the difference between monotonous, dull buzzes and rich, premium haptic effects on a mobile device, they will quickly realize what they’ve been missing and recognize the possibilities for their device.
Where do you see the biggest impact for HD haptics on mobile?
Of course, although (mobile) gaming is a killer use case, haptics isn’t limited to gaming alone. Leading media streaming services are working on haptics-enhancing video experiences. OEMs who design phones based on the Qualcomm Snapdragon mobile platform and build their own custom UIs can leverage haptics to provide a much more premium experience simply through software changes.
Importantly, HD haptics can significantly improve accessibility. HD haptics provides a much more inclusive experience for everyone and enables users to receive information on their mobile device when they can’t – or don’t want to – look at the screen. Typical examples of this are mobile navigation or a real-world AR game, where the user might want to get information from their phone without taking it out of their pocket.
There are plenty of high-value use cases and interest from content creators to build better experiences. The problem isn’t interest, but complexity. In the past there has been a lack of available design tools and guiding principles for haptics, which makes the design and integration of haptics quite costly. At Lofelt, we are aiming to reduce complexity across the entire value chain – from content design to hardware delivery.
What are some of these challenges for app developers who want to implement HD haptics?
Historically, haptic implementations were derived from technical requirements, and often wouldn’t take experience design into consideration. Creatives who would naturally design experiences – game UX designers and app developers – are unfamiliar with haptics as a modality and, at best, consider it an afterthought to their UX work.
To make haptics an integral part of apps and games, we need to give creatives better haptic design tools and make sure the work they produce plays back across platforms. For creating audio, there are sophisticated audio editing tools, playback SDKs and standard file formats like PCM or MP3 that play on any device. Unfortunately, haptics hasn’t matured at the same pace.
Furthermore, on the device and playback side, there is no experience parity across platforms. You might be able to design a game with HD haptics that feels great on a platform, but the same UX will not work on another platform. As a consequence, app developers would have to design different types of haptics UX for different platforms. This, of course, increases production cost and complexity.
New haptic design tools such as Lofelt Studio empower developers to quickly create, edit, collaborate and implement haptic effects for multiple platforms without disrupting their usual workflows. Our research shows that the right haptic tools speed up implementation 10x faster than the current manual process.
And, what are some challenges for phone brands?
For phone manufacturers, the lack of industry-wide quality standards and integration guidelines are major challenges towards improving haptics, which can lead to disarray and time-consuming discussions. The result – product teams tasked with haptics integration are often given requirements only for cost and physical size, but not quality.
To address this, Lofelt, together with the HIF, has proposed a standard set of hardware parameters and requirements for creating high-quality user experiences on mobile. In addition, Qualcomm Technologies and Lofelt are working together to provide software frameworks, tools, tutorials, integration examples and design guidelines for both content brands and phone makers.
What’s next for haptics?
On an industry level, we will see accelerated progress through standardization and requirements for vibrotactile haptic feedback. But high-quality haptic experiences are not limited to smartphones alone. As more apps are integrating HD haptics into their experience, more playback devices such as gaming peripherals, wearables and head-mounted devices will support HD haptics.
With streamlined haptic design tools, app developers will bring rich, engaging haptic experiences to the growing number of actuator-equipped, Bluetooth-connected smartphone peripherals, such as game pads. And the new haptic frameworks (we are introducing with Qualcomm Technologies) will enable Android developers to deliver haptics to device accessories without having to deal with numerous device-specific APIs.
And beyond vibro-tactile feedback, we will see more devices utilizing force-feedback in conjunction with vibro-tactile feedback for gaming and AR experiences.