Apple’s 3D Touch system may be useful — someday

The system is counterintuitive, and its usefulness is yet to be demonstrated

The 3D Touch system that Apple is delivering with its newest iOS devices is the quintessential solution in search of a problem. It doesn’t seem to do much that is useful (yet, anyway), but it delivers that uselessness in such an elegant and Apple-ish way.

The concept is intriguing. 3D Touch allows users to communicate different things to their devices depending on the amount of pressure behind their gestures. But though Apple is pushing the technology as a means of better interactions when emailing, texting and using images, 3D Touch initially does nothing to advance those areas of productivity. Meanwhile, due to the technology’s lack of user-intuitiveness, it can convincingly mimic a malfunctioning unit.

I am aware of only one area where Apple has made 3D Touch immediately useful. In graphics applications, it allows for the intensity of touch to translate into the thickness and darkness of lines as they are being drawn. For some users, that could very well be a big deal, but as someone who never draws on his phone, it merits Apple an incredibly tiny brownie point.

I won’t give Apple a hard time about delivering a functionality before there’s a real need for it. It’s hardly the first tech vendor to do so, and it can be seen as a sign of leadership, a move that will be hailed as brilliant if enough ISVs embrace it. With 3D Touch, though, users have to get accustomed to something that, for now, gives them no real benefit. And for a lot of people, it hasn’t been easy getting accustomed to 3D Touch. Before I picked up my 6s Plus last week, I had heard about users getting unresponsive units. I figured that, with so many units being shipped, a few are going to be glitchy. It turns out, though, that it wasn’t a glitch, and the phones weren’t actually unresponsive. Those users had run afoul of the idiosyncrasies of 3D Touch, as I learned when I tried to set up my phone at the Apple Store. Keys weren’t responding to my clicks. The rep I was working with just smiled — she had seen this many times before — and said, “You’re pressing too hard.” Sure enough, when I pressed ever so lightly, the digits appeared. It happened again about 20 seconds later and she said, “It takes some getting used to.” (I would like to note that I am always favorably impressed with the quality of people that the Apple Store hires and retains. I have deliberately gone to quite a few different Apple Stores nearby, and nearly every time have been helped by high-quality associates. See, retailers? It is possible to do. Are you listening, Macy’s and Costco? As for you, Best Buy, I’ve given up.)

That Apple Store associate was right — it does take some getting used to. The reason this is a problem is that we’ve all been trained by generations of keyboards, physical and virtual, that the best way to deal with a non-responsive key is to strike it harder. If that doesn’t work, strike it harder still. Nothing in our experience tells us that a softer stroke is what is needed.

Why does this 3D touchiness even come into play during something like data entry? Older iPhones could recognize a harder click, so why can’t the newer ones? This isn’t an example of better responsiveness; it’s pickier responsiveness. And when customers are unfamiliar with how it works, it amounts to worse responsiveness.

According to Apple, 3D Touch is useful already, even for those of us who aren’t artists. With email, it notes, it allows for what it calls Peek and Pop, letting you see more of a message without fully opening it. My first reaction to this bit of salesmanship was that I’ve gotten along quite well with the level of preview my iPhone has always provided. Upon actually using Peek and Pop, my reaction was that the 3D Touch “peek” takes a lot longer. If I want that peek, I need to press down on the message for a full second or two. For anyone who gets a lot of mail, that’s enough time to make Peek and Pop a no-go.

On the case

Before I got my new iPhone, I had been worried that a more sensitive touchscreen would not work well when using an ultra-protective phone case. I’m happy to say I was wrong about that. I tested the case that has historically been the most protective — the OtterBox Defender — and found that it delivered no interference with the new 3D Touch system. That surprised me because the OtterBox units designed for the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus definitely did interfere with the touchscreen, forcing users to click much harder to have input registered.

When I put my iPhone 6s Plus through its paces with and without a screen-protecting case, I could detect no difference in responsiveness nor in touch sensitivity. What OtterBox did, according to product validation manager Matt Wilkson, was to focus on the capacitive issues with the interface, rather than directly focusing on the touch pressure. The capacitive issues involve, in effect, the electricity coming from the fingers, which is why a mobile touchscreen won’t work when users are wearing typical winter gloves, regardless of how hard they push. (Texting gloves are actually a thing.)

Given that screen-protecting phone cases place a physical barrier between the screen and a user’s fingers, it’s impressive that OtterBox’s case resulted in no perceptible reduction. (OtterBox refused to identify the material or thickness of its screen-protecting element, citing competitive issues.)

Like so many things that Apple has helped push, time and the partner community will make a huge difference. Remember that, in the earliest iterations, voice recognition delivered little functional purpose. Today, I can hardly use the iPhone without it.

Will touch-sensitivity ultimately prove to be just as useful? I hope so. That’s because right now, unless I want to draw a picture, it’s really a head-scratcher.

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