I took the advice of a former colleague this weekend and endured the hoards at an Apple Store to check out one of the most mundane things imaginable: a trackpad. I pressed down and it clicked, as expected. But it didn’t actually “click,” it just felt that way. First thought: Neat! Second thought: I wonder if this could work in a car?
We’ve all bitched and moaned about automakers slowly stealing the simple and logical physical controls in cars. Buttons, switches, and knobs have been ditched in favor of One Screen To Rule Them All, and in nearly every case, it’s been a complete and abject failure.
Many systems continue to rely on resistive screens that are glove-friendly (they’re also world’s cheaper), while the cars that have moved into the 21st century with capacitive screens (like your smartphone) are still laggy and buggy and generally awful. But that’s only part of the issue.
Humans like things that respond when they’re touched. We need tactile feedback, particularly in cars, where our attention needs to be focused on driving and not futzing with the next track “button” on the stereo. We had that and then automakers took them away. Voice controls? They still suck. So what’s next?
The trackpad on the new 13-inch MacBook Pro is fitted with the awfully-named Taptic Engine, something Apple originally showed on its watch. At first glance, it was just an Apple-branded version of the same kind of vibration you feel on your phone when you get a notification. But then Apple scaled it up for use on the laptop’s trackpad, and its real application shown through.
Apple calls it (again, unfortunately) Force Touch, and it’s actually based on decades-old research using an electromagnetic motor that oscillates at precise frequencies to give the illusion of pressing a button. But it doesn’t stop there.
While playing with it, there’s actually two “detents” to the trackpad: the single-click we’re used to and also a deeper “double-click” that feels like you’re pressing through the trackpad.
So how would this apply to cars?
Kyle VanHemert over at Wired has a great breakdown of the tech and its possibilities, along with an interview with one of the original researchers, but here’s the nut of it:
Sophisticated haptic feedback could add a new dimension to smartphone interactions, which so far have been trapped behind glass screens. Imagine an on-screen keyboard where you could orient yourself by feeling the grooves between the letters, or a version of Angry Birds where you could sense the tension in the slingshot as you drew it further back. Or just think about feeling a pleasant bit of texture under your fingertips as you flicked through your Twitter or Instagram feeds.
Or feeling the skip track button on your dash. Or Pandora’s “thumbs up”. Or a frequently visited destination.
Apple is reportedly working on a version of its Taptic Engine for phones. If something similar could be scaled up, built to automotive-grade specs, and installed behind a larger touchscreen, it’s got potential. If automakers are serious about doing away with more and more physical controls, they need to offer a compelling alternative, and this is the first thing I’ve felt that comes anywhere close.