We recently took a deep dive into what haptics are and why they're a vital part of your smartphone. Today, we're going even further to see how phone manufacturers tune haptic motors to shape the user experience. Plus, we'll be touching on the physiology behind haptics and what OEMs hope to achieve in the future with haptic technology.

Tuning haptics for smartphone OEMs

Haptic manufacturers, like Cirrus Logic who sponsored this article, work alongside phone manufacturers to tune the haptic experience for each device — particularly the linear resonant actuator (LRA) which is responsible for the vibrations and bumps you feel every time the haptic motor is engaged. The ultimate goal is for the LRA to achieve peak acceleration as quickly as possible, and for the motor to stop the moment user input has ceased, creating a sense of discernible feedback that is precise and tactile.

In short, good haptics should make you feel like you're pressing a physical button on your device, even when a physical button isn't present. You can feel these haptics at work when you place your finger on the fingerprint sensor on your phone, or when you tap in your lock screen password, or even when you jot out a text message on your virtual keyboard. All of these short bumps feel like button presses, even though you're touching stationary surfaces.

The psychology of haptic feedback on smartphones

Now that we know what OEMs want haptics to emulate on a smartphone (button presses), the next question is why? The psychological implications of haptics fall into three categories: Physical connection, relation of information, and input/output synchronization.

First, unlike the original Blackberries and feature phones of yesteryear, most smartphones don't have physical keyboards that connect users to their devices; they're just slabs of glass. Good haptics are able to emulate the tactile sensation of button presses through that glass in a way that helps users feel more confident and satisfied with key inputs — each bump you feel when typing on your keyboard tells you that your inputs are being received. On the flip side, bad haptics that feel mushy or out of sync will make you feel disconnected from your devices, thus hindering the user experience.

Second, your device receives tons of notifications a day, from texts, to emails, to calendar events, and more. To help you tell them apart, haptic effects can be customized to offer users different types of information based on the sensations of the vibrations. Think about how a text message feels in your pocket versus a phone call — two types of notifications that are completely discernible without looking at your phone. This is haptic technology at work.

Finally, good haptics will be expertly synchronized with the audio elements of your device to create a synergistic loop of user input and feedback. Imagine for a moment that you're typing on your virtual keyboard with the volume and haptics turned on. If the vibrations and clicks all align with your thumbs on the keys, you'll feel physically connected to your device and therefore more confident in the commands you're relaying to it. But if the haptic experience is poor or the sound doesn't match up with the vibrations and your thumbs, you'll probably disable these features because of the mismatched feedback they provide. Luckily, premium haptic manufacturers like Cirrus Logic are able to read the audio data of a smartphone and synchronize it with the haptic motor so that feedback feels natural and in time with the sound coming from the device.

What OEMs look for in haptic performance

OEMs essentially want haptics to replace physical buttons on smartphones, and there are a handful of reasons why they're leaning in this direction.

For starters, any moving component in a device eventually wears out after extended use (remember hard disk drives?). Although it doesn't commonly happen in the lifespan of a smartphone, physical buttons can break, forcing users to either repair or replace their devices. The more physical buttons that can be transitioned to virtual buttons with haptic feedback, the longer a device will hold up over time.

Haptics can also improve smartphone designs. The components that make up a physical button take up valuable space within a phone's chassis. Less physical buttons on a device mean OEMs can make their phones thinner and sleeker, allowing manufacturers to explore new form factors, like foldables.

OEMs are even looking for ways that haptics can add new dimensions of tactile feedback to the user experience. Imagine feeling an explosion radiate through your device when playing a mobile game or watching an action movie. Imagine sensing the shutter snap when you take a photo. Haptics could also be extended to the music playing on your device, allowing you to experience the bass boost of your favorite new track in your hands.

These are just some of the things that Cirrus Logic is partnering with phone manufacturers to achieve in the next generation of smartphones.

Special thanks to Cirrus Logic

This post was made possible by our friends at Cirrus Logic, a premium haptics manufacturer whose technology is featured in devices from Samsung, Google, and more. If you'd like to learn about Cirrus Logic, check out their official website here.

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