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How 3D Touch managed to make touch input smarter

Apple’s 3D Touch technology could have a lot of potential. Here’s everything you need to know about it.

When Apple first announced Force Touch back in 2014 the new technology didn’t exactly look groundbreaking. The features it offered back then seemed more gimmicky than useful. But three years later, this technology has had significant improvements, adopted a new name and works on multiple devices. In this chapter, let’s take a quick dive into Apple’s 3D Touch technology and find out how far it has permeated through the ecosystem.

What is Force Touch/3D Touch? (Hardware)

Pressure sensitive multi-touch technology (which is what the generic name for this input method is), marketed as Force Touch by Apple enables touchscreens and trackpads to sense different levels of force being applied. This technology provides new ways to access different controls within apps depending on the amount of pressure you apply to each tap.

Underneath the capacitive touch surface, are pressure sensors located evenly on all corners that can detect the subtle differences in the amount of force being applied. The pressure sensors are then connected to a small device made up of a series of electrodes (Apple calls it the Taptic Engine) that can mimic a physical click of a trackpad using vibrations and also simulate a haptic feedback. With this technology, the trackpad can also be programmed to perform quick system or app actions by simply applying more pressure.

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What the internals of a pressure sensitive touch screen look like

Force Touch is currently being used in Apple’s 12 inch MacBooks, newer MacBook Pros and the Magic Trackpad 2.

Apple re-engineered this technology and took it to another level when they introduced 3D Touch with the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus back in 2015. The new touch screen works using capacitive sensors integrated directly into the display making them more sensitive than Force Touch. When a press is registered, the capacitive sensors measure the distance between the outer glass and the backlight panel, which then combined with the touch sensors is able to calculate an accurate feedback.

3D Touch is currently found on Apple’s flagship iPhones like the iPhone 6S, 6S Plus, 7 and 7 Plus. You can of course expect more iPhones and iOS devices to adopt this feature in the near future.

Taking advantage of 3D Touch

Having a pressure sensitive display can add a lot of new functionality to touchscreen devices. App developers can take advantage of this technology to provide deeper controls and features. Here are some of the best implementations of 3D Touch right now:

  • Quick actions from home screen3D touch
    Applying a little pressure on any app icons that support 3D Touch, displays a quick access menu that lets you perform specific actions right from the homescreen. For example, pressing down the camera icon displays a quick option that lets you take a selfie, record a video, record slo-mo or take a photo.
  • Live Photos
    When taking any photo, Apple’s Live Photos feature by default records a 1.5 seconds video of what happens before and after taking any picture from your iOS device. With the help of 3D Touch, you can make your photos come to life (with movement and sound) by simply pressing down on the photo.
  • Peek and Pop
    Peek and Pop allow you to preview any messages, links, emails, etc, on any apps that support it without having to open the application. On any app that supports this functionality, you can peek into underlying items by pressing on the icon/notification, and it will give you a tiny 3D touchpreview. Simply lifting your finger will exit the preview. Press deeper into the item and it’ll pop up to full view. Some applications also let you select quick actions in the preview by swiping up.
  • Pressure levels in drawing
    Having a pressure-sensitive screen can be a lot more fun and useful when you want to scribble something or create art. By taking advantage of 3D Touch, creative apps are able to vary line thickness depending on the pressure being applied or provide realistic brush controls, and much more.
  • Deeper controls in games
    There are plenty of games in the App Store that takes advantage of 3D Touch by adding pressure-sensitive controls and features. Games like Magic Piano lets you play as loud or softly as you want depending on how hard you tap just like a real piano. Other shooter games like Warhammer 40,000: Freeblade, Modern Combat 5 and Cover Fire provides deeper controls like light tapping for gun fire, pressing a little harder for zooming in on scope or hard press for switching to firing secondary weapons like missiles and bombs.

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Where it needs improvements

There are so many advantages to using 3D Touch as it changes the way we interact with our smart devices. However, the current generation of its implementation isn’t perfect and there are many usecases where Apple needs to put in more thought. Let’s take a look at some of those:

  • Unique stand-out features
    Most of the functionality that 3D Touch currently offers can still be argued to be more gimmicky than useful. Gestures like the peek and pop or quick actions aren’t anything extraordinary. Android phones can achieve the same result with a simple long press. Take apps like Instagram for instance, where you can use the same ‘peek-in’ feature on Android by simply pressing any photo a few milliseconds longer instead of hard pressing. Right now, Apple needs to work on newer software features that can actually take advantage of the unique hardware.
  • More apps support
    It’s been two whole years since Apple first launched the iPhone 6S with 3D Touch, however, not many apps and games on the App Store support the feature. Even if they do, apps will need to spend some time “educating” users as 3D Touch actions don’t come intuitively to users. All we can hope here, is for Apple to start pushing 3D Touch on more devices so app developers for iOS and OS X can work on bringing new and smarter features that can take advantage of the technology.
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Various layers that make 3D Touch work

The future of touch technology

Ten years ago, when Apple introduced “multi-touch” on their first iPhone, it revolutionized the entire tech world. It completely changed the way we interact with our phones and other touchscreen devices using pinch, taps and swipes. Although, the origins of multi-touch as a technology was first born in the labs of MIT, CERN and few other universities during the early 1970s, it was Apple that later perfected and popularised this technology. And since then, touch technology is seeing improvements with features like more multi-touch points support, quicker responses and sensitivity, etc, but the upgrade has always remained gradual.

Then came Force Touch and 3D Touch. Although it’s still in infancy, with better software and hardware development, this technology could be a breakthrough. Imagine in the future having a pressure sensing display that can identify between different pressure levels of touch, register the feel and actually mimic it artificially with the use of electrodes and electrical currents only. Say your touch screen touches you back or transmits a touch from another person virtually. We’ve already come a very long way and honestly, this future does not seem to be too far off.

And until the day arrives when we start carrying tiny wearables that project holographic interactive displays and wear crazy virtual headsets, 3D touch seems to be taking the right direction towards improving the immersion levels offered by the tech around us.

This article was first published in the September 2017 issue of Fast Track, which comes with Digit magazine. To read Digit’s articles first, subscribe here or download the Digit app for Android and iOS. You could also buy Digit’s previous issues here.

Yangerlong Jamir

Yangerlong Jamir