Haptic feedback is a term that has been thrown around a lot recently. Sony especially is proud to flaunt that their Dualsense gamepad and the recently announced Playstation VR controller both have it and use it to great effect.
They are not the only controllers, or even devices, to use Haptic technology. As you´ll soon see, it is quite common for smartphones, gamepads, and VR controllers to use haptics to bring more advanced feedback to the player in the shape of vibrations. So...
What is Haptic Feedback?
At its most basic, you can say that Haptic Feedback is simply vibration. If your controller shakes in response to something that happened in the game, odds are it´s using "haptic" technology to do so.
"Haptic" is an adjective relating to the sense, and the perception, of touch. As such, saying "Haptic feedback" is the same as saying "force feedback". There isn´t a unified technique, device, or technology that defines it.
One of the first users of this technology was airplanes, as they needed to give fast, easy to understand feedback to the pilots controlling them, and what better to do so than making the instruments shake slightly?. The technology was popularized in gaming by the Rumble Pack released for the Nintendo 64. Since then, pretty much every gamepad comes with some form of "force feedback" (vibration).
The original method to create this vibration was by sticking a couple of weighed motors into the gamepads. When the game wanted to shake the controller, the motors would turn on and vibrate. Developers could fine-tune the sensitivity of the shake by activating different sized motors (or turning them all on at the same time).
But of course, we had that for a long time. When you see Haptic Feedback advertised for a modern controller or VR platform, what does it mean now? Hos is it different than the old motors? Surely, companies wouldn't advertise decades-old technology as brand new, right?
Well, that varies from company to company and from controller to controller. So, where can you find devices that use Haptic Feedback?
Haptic Feedback on the Playstation 5
As we mentioned before, Sony promotes haptic feedback as one of the big innovations in their Dualsense controller. What makes it stand above its competition?
The Dualsense doesn´t use motors like its predecessors but vibrates with coil activators, that is, a piece of coil and a magnet. The more power is given to the magnet, the more strongly will the coil move and shake.
Why is this better? Well, when you are using motors, you can pretty much only turn them on or off to deliver the vibration. With the coil, you can adjust the intensity and frequency with which the coil will move up and down. A good developer can play with this to make you feel different types of feedback depending on what´s happening in the game.
We also have confirmation that the new PSVR controller will also "haptic feedback". In the absence of an official explanation, we can deduce that Sony will use a similar technology to the one they already use in their Dualsense.
Can you turn off haptic feedback on the PlayStation 5?
Yes, the PS5 does give you the option to turn haptic feedback off from its menu. However, there is little reason to do so unless you dislike the sensation of your gamepad shaking in your hands. If that´s the case, you might want to lower the intensity instead of turning it off outright (you can also do that from the menu).
Using haptics indeed drains a bit more battery out of your controller, but it doesn´t use enough power to be a concern. Unless you are in a transoceanic flight where you have to squeeze every bit of energy out of your controller, it doesn´t make much of a difference in its battery life wherever you have it on or off.
Haptic feedback vs HD rumble? Does Nintendo use haptics?
When the Nintendo Switch was released, the Japanese company promoted the benefits of the HD Rumble in their new joy-cons. The marketing materials sounded a lot like what Sony is saying to promote their Dualsense, so...
What´s the difference between HD rumble and Haptic Feedback?
In semantics terms, nothing. HD rumble is a marketing term that Nintendo uses to promote the way their controllers use haptic feedback. As a matter of fact, the same company that´s responsible for the Dualsense´s haptic feedback is the one that made the HD rumble on the Joy-con, Immersion Corporation.
How does haptics, or the "HD rumble", work for a Joy-con? By using linear actuators. It functions kind of like a speaker, a coil creates a magnetic field that moves a little piece of mass in two directions (like up and down, or forwards and backward) Now, that explanation sounds familiar, doesn´t it?
In any case, it works better than the motors of old, allowing for much more control in how the vibration is delivered to "shake" the joy-con in a different manner.
In short, the so-called "HD Rumble" of the joy-cons could also be considered a form of Haptic technology, as it gives personalized feedback (shaking and vibrating the controller) in response to the game and your inputs.
Does your phone have Haptic Feedback?
As we previously mentioned, haptic technology isn´t new. Smartphones (and smartwatches) have been using it for quite a while. Apple has incorporated haptic technology to most of their iPhones after the iPhone 7. They make it work by using an actuator inside your phone to make it vibrate.
This feature is not mandatory, if for some reason you don´t like how your phone shakes when you press it, you can turn it off from the menu.
Now, what about Android phones? There are too many phones that use that operating system, we can´t exactly give a rundown of which ones specifically have haptic feedback. But, as a rule of thumb, any high-end smartphone is bound to come with some sort of haptic technology, the most common being tiny motors built into the circuitry.
Now the technology is not with smartphones as with gaming consoles. This is because phones use it more to deliver user feedback rather than enhance a gaming experience. The phone vibrates when you perform certain actions on an app or when receiving notifications.
Haptic technology in VR. Controllers, suits, and gloves.
VR controllers usually have some form of haptic feedback built into them to make them shake when needed and give a more immersive experience. The Oculus Touch has the technology, the new PSVR controller will have it too. Funnily enough, the Valve Index controller also uses a linear actuator for haptics just like the joy-cons.
However, that´s not what people usually mean when they associate haptics with VR. Instead, they usually talk about more "advanced" gadgets like haptic suits and haptic gloves.
What are those? A haptic glove is well, a glove that you use to control a virtual hand in a VR environment. This kind of gloves delivers direct force feedback to your fingertips, the most expensive ones even let you feel textures.
Unfortunately, their implementation in VR games is a bit lackluster, not all games support them. However, they aren´t used only for gaming. Haptic gloves are also employed in some research fields and for VR training. For example, it can help police practice bomb defusal in a safe environment.
A haptic suit is the same concept but applied to your whole body. Want to feel every strike in a VR game like it was the real thing? Then all you need to do is strap one of these jackets to your torso and take the hit. Luckily, the suit can´t simulate a gunshot, but it will pack a punch. As a bonus, they also track your real-life movements into the VR world.
Like the gloves, these suits are also mostly used for VR training and some rehabilitation exercises. You can still use it to play most of your VR games, however, although they will need a bit of setup first.
Haptic feedback on your mouse
Gamepads and controllers use haptics to deliver vibrations into your hands, so why can´t your mouse do it too?
Well, turns out it can. There are a handful of gaming mice built-in with haptic technology that lets them shake and vibrate as if they were a gamepad, of course, in a much more subdued way than their console peers. They usually achieve this by putting tiny rotating motors inside the mice.
This feature is rarely advertised as rumble, haptics, or anything of the sort. Companies that sell these kinds of mice prefer to use the term "tactile feedback" to advertise the technology.
This idea might seem a bit counterproductive for some genres, like First Person Shooters, but the truth is that vibration doesn´t get in the way of the game much, your aim isn´t thrown off much. It would only be a hassle if you are playing at a high level in a competitive e-sport.
Granted, these mice tend to be more expensive than the rest of their peers, save from the higher-end of gaming mice, but you might end up enjoying them quite a bit if you give them a chance. You can try the HyperX Pulsefire Surge for a not too expensive example.
As an aside, some touchpads do have haptic feedback. Apple´s Magic Trackpad is the most well-known example.
And that´s it, everything you need to know about haptic feedback, how does it work, and which devices use it. If you are interested in similar reads, check out our article where we explain how gyros and motion controls work.