Touchy feely: haptic input (corrected)

We have a lot more than five senses.

For a start, there’s the remarkable sphincter which is capable – except perhaps after the most mephistophelean of curries – of distinguishing gas from solid/liquid. We can also perform tasks of fine dexterity with our fingers ‘doing the seeing’, knowing where they are without being able to see them.

Until relatively recently, mainstream computer input devices have used remarkably few of our senses, and only very crudely. The near-universal keyboard is little more sophisticated than that on an IBM Selectric ‘golfball’ typewriter from the early 1970s, in turn a direct descendant of mechanical typewriters. Their appearance has evolved more than their function, or layout.

Apart from the occasional multi-button renegade, mice have been quite staid too. Apple stuck with the single-button mouse for an amazing 21 years, in the face of growing calls for a second button, then in 2005 gave us the Mighty Mouse, with no less than four, if you count its scroll ball. But again, these are only variations on a theme, one which uses remarkably little of our sensory or motor abilities.

When its Magic Trackpad was released five years ago, I was an early adopter and enthusiast to the extent that my mouse only saw use in emergencies, when my Mac was not responsive to wireless peripherals. Inferior, of course, to a proper graphics tablet for drawing, I found the Trackpad a far superior input device whether editing text or manipulating graphics.

I was quietly gutted when the Magic Trackpad 2 appeared in October, that it needed Bluetooth 4.0, which my old iMac could not support. I even went over to the Apple Store in Southampton to drool over its forbidden fruit.

Now that I have my new iMac, that barrier has gone. Although I had to be happy with a Magic Mouse 2 bundled with the iMac (for the fastest delivery), my Magic Trackpad 2 was delivered today, and I am just starting to explore its added sophistication.

The first thing which baffled me, through its opacity, was the fact that it appeared unable to handle click-drag selection of arbitrary text. This was one of my mainstay gestures on the old trackpad, and it was infuriating to be unable to find it in any of the Trackpad pane settings.

So which is the control for click-drag selection?

This is because it is not actually mentioned there at all. Instead, you seem to be expected to guess that enabling “Force Click and haptic feedback” at the foot of the Point & Click tab also disables click-drag selection of text. Maybe this was obvious to everyone else, but Apple’s description of that revolves around the gesture of ‘click then press firmly’, and of course it is not demonstrated in the otherwise excellent video clips showing the range of gestures.

[Important correction: the above is not entirely correct. When I first started using the Magic Trackpad 2 it appeared to be correct. It turns out that you can have the Force Click option turned on and make click-drag selections still. More will be revealed in a subsequent article.]

Both the Magic Mouse 2 and Magic Trackpad 2 are starting to make better use of our haptic sensory, and peripheral motor, abilities. Haptic input, for the Mac at least, has progressed well over the last five years. But it still has a long way to go to match what we are capable of, or even what is available on the latest iOS devices.

One potential problem is the number of people who, particularly later in life, have more limited haptic abilities. My finger sensation suffered as a result of frostbite sustained when I was in the Antarctic back in the 1980s. For many who have worked in industries which use vibrating tools, they have limited finger sensation as a result of that occupational exposure, and there is an inevitable decline with advancing age. So, whilst there is ample scope for more sophistication, there must also be room for the individual to tailor their controls to fit their abilities. This is not a walled-off Accessibility issue, but a widespread personal need.

I hope that Apple continues to explore new modes of haptic input and control, and that the Magic Trackpad 2 is but one step along that path.