3D Touch Is Apple’s New Secret Weapon

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I’m here to praise Apple again. Sorry. I have to do it. It’s not in my contract nor am I paid to do it – imagine if we were! We’d be rich! – but after manhandling the iPhone 6S Plus it’s abundantly clear that Apple has discovered another breakthrough. And they are surprisingly nonchalant about it.

Apple’s first interface breakthrough happened when it unleashed real multitouch on the world. Until the original iPhone, screens reacted to one single point and often required a stylus to operate. There were exceptions, but even after the iPhone launched competitors couldn’t keep up and had to release resistive screen phones until they could join in the multi-touch game.

This next interface trick is far more subtle. By sensing pressure applied on the surface of the Apple Watch, the new MacBook trackpad, and the new iPhones, Apple has added a new layer to the touchscreen experience. In short, they have gone deep, allowing us to move past surfaces and into more dynamic menu systems and even UI tactics. As it stands 3D touch is pretty boring right now but imagine 3D touching into an MRI scan or anatomy textbook. Imagine 3D touching through the cosmos. Imagine 3D touching in games where you focus with a little pressure. There is a clear reason Apple abandoned the moniker of “Force Touch:” what their experience offers has less to do with force and a lot more to do with a three dimensional experience.

3D Touch isn’t an incremental update. It is a real tool and you can be sure that, by CES time, manufacturers from Samsung to Xaomi will be offering stuff called Push Touch, Deep Finger, and Insert UI for their phones. It is inevitable. And Apple had it first.

This is not to say I don’t appreciate what competitors have brought to the table. Samsung’s Edge series is one of the most compelling and amazing screen technologies to reach the market in a long time and many manufacturers are doing things with materials and design that is to be commended. But none of them have released anything that intrinsically changes how we, as humans, interact with the slabs of glass and metal we hold in our pockets at all times. That’s a unique thing.

I’m not saying Force Touch has changed the world. What it has done is tweak the world in a very meaningful way. Apple’s products are starting to hit more senses. Thanks to haptics the iPhone and the Apple Watch are able to tap into our nervous system. In that case, Apple nuzzles us, offering a feather flick of interaction. Interestingly, I’m already feeling “phantom taps” even when I wear a mechanical watch, a sign that old Pavlov was right.

With 3D Touch, The Apple devices ask us to touch them with a little more intent, to move past the glass and into something deeper behind the surface. This is an important change in how we use our phones and one sure to be successful. Of all of the other improvements in these new phones, 3D Touch is the most compelling and it is the one so subtle that Apple itself didn’t really talk it up during the keynote or briefings. “By the way,” they seemed to say. “You can now stick your finger through the phone. No big deal.”

Apple hasn’t dented the universe in a while but they have tapped it with lots of force. They’ll ding it eventually, but until then we can all enjoy the odd ‘Tick’ of this latest feature.