3D Touch - The Future of Apple's Interfaces

In 2014, Apple announced the Apple Watch. While many were expecting a shrunken iPhone on your wrist, Apple instead focused on a new experience. The Digital Crown, for instance, let users scroll their content without blocking most of the screen with their finger. To add further interactivity to apps, they also introduced something new: Force Touch.

In 2015, Apple added Force touch to the Mac lineup with the new MacBook, updated MacBook Pros, and the new Magic Trackpad 2. Later that year, the iPhone 6s was launched with a Force Touch capable display, branded on iOS devices as 3D Touch.

On each platform, the concept of Force Touch or 3D Touch acts a bit differently. For instance, with watchOS, Force Touch is really a required element to provide more interactive options without sacrificing screen space. On the Mac, default implementation seems to duplicate 3-finger taps while providing a few useful improvements, such as making use of the Taptic engine to provide feedback to the user's finger.

Home screen shortcuts introduced in iOS 9

Home screen shortcuts introduced in iOS 9

On iOS, at least with iOS 9, the introduction of 3D Touch seemed like a gimmick to some. Live Photos required 3D Touch to move, yet can be activated by a long press on older devices. On the home screen, a hard press shows app shortcuts. And the concept of peeking and popping into content lets user quickly glance at information before committing to loading a certain view.

On Android, some said that the idea of detecting pressure on the screen was an old concept. Yet, looking at what was introduced early in the Android SDK showed those functions to be based more on the size of the tap than the actual pressure. In other words, it wasn't truly making use of a pressure sensitive display.

That's not to say that no Android device has a pressure sensitive display. Huawei beat the iPhone 6s to market with the Mate S and its pressure sensitive display. Yet, despite launch in 2015, we have yet to see many major flagship Android devices come with that feature. Even the Samsung Galaxy S7 and Galaxy Note 7 devices this year fail to include that functionality.

Following the introduction of the iPhone 6s, word began to spread of Android manufacturers coming out with their own displays. The recently released Android N was said to include support for their own implementation of 3D Touch, but the feature has now been reportedly moved to a maintenance update to the OS. Do Google, Samsung, and other Android manufacturers just think this is a useless gimmick?

3D Touch in iOS 10 enable app widgets to be previewed

3D Touch in iOS 10 enable app widgets to be previewed

If we look at Apple, however, we see a different picture. iOS 10 seems made for 3D Touch. The lock screen experience, and notifications in particular, truly benefit from 3D Touch. Having been running the iOS 10 developer beta on my iPhone 6s, I can say that my use of 3D Touch has greatly improved over iOS 9. In fact, when I switch to a non-3D Touch device, such as my iPad Air 2 or an iPhone 6 Plus used for app testing at work, I find myself trying to hard press the screen to perform certain actions.

While the implementation isn't complete on the Mac, I fully suspect Apple will be making further use of Force/3D Touch on all of its devices. In fact, I would be surprised if this year's iPad updates didn't include some level of 3D Touch. And the rumored MacBook Pro update? It'll definitely have a Force Trackpad. But in the coming months and years, I'd suspect Apple will add more 3D interactions to macOS.

All of this shows something that Apple excels at: taking their control of the hardware and software of the iPhone to make a unique experience. If Android supports pressure touch in the future, not all manufacturers will. It'll introduce another level of fragmentation to their ecosystem. Yet, for Apple, adding this capability to their line is no trouble at all, and I'm convinced that the use of 3D Touch will only improve with each generation of Apple's operating systems from now on.