3D Touch Needs Liberty or Death

10 October 2018

Three years ago, Apple pitched the next frontier of touchscreen interaction.

At the time, Multi-Touch was defined by a few gestures, all of which took place on the two-dimensional plane of the screen. 3D Touch, introduced on the iPhone 6S in late 2015, provided a third dimension of engagement with iOS: pressure. Rather than tapping, long tapping, or swiping things, users would press things. To allow this, iPhones 6S through XS (sans iPhones SE and XR) have all used sensors to determine the distance between the cover glass and the display panel.

3D Touch allowed far more to be done without adding any new points of interaction. This was the same theory behind having a long tap: adding another gesture rather than another button. Can you imagine how cluttered with touch targets iOS would have to be if it only had the classic single tap?

The concept of 3D Touch was incredibly helpful. Before we go further, we should note how much was — and still is — bet on 3D Touch's success. The stakes are high when you tell people you can sell them the future. Shortly after the launch of the iPhone 6S, Apple confirmed that the technology behind 3D Touch was a massive investment in research and development. Here's Phil Schiller in 2015:

Engineering-wise, the hardware to build a display that does what [3D Touch] does is unbelievably hard. And we’re going to waste a whole year of engineering — really, two — at a tremendous amount of cost and investment in manufacturing if it doesn’t do something that [people] are going to use. If it’s just a demo feature and a month later nobody is really using it, this is a huge waste of engineering talent.

Let's take Schiller's word for it. For this new type of tap — let's call it the deep tap — to be successful, Apple needed to count on both users (and, in addition, developers) to adopt it and integrate it into their apps and their lives. If not, then the whole thing was just a gargantuan waste of time and money. And let's not forget the opportunity cost: what else could Apple have done with the resources it devoted to 3D Touch?

Developers have not neglected the deep tap; most major apps support the basic gestures even if they don't go out of their way to find amazing purposes for deep taps. Users, though, have not taken advantage of 3D Touch to nearly as great an extent as Apple hoped.

Nobody knows what 3D Touch is. Nobody knows it's there. Nobody knows how or where or when to use it. And it's not their fault.

The problem is not developers. It's not even users. The problem is Apple. 3D Touch is a ship with a cannonball hole in the hull, and Apple has the choice of abandoning ship or patching the hole with some kind of indestructible duct tape. It hasn't reached a decision thus far, and the main reason 3D Touch still exists is probably that Apple is embarrassed to kill years of engineering effort.

What Phil Schiller didn't mention was that Apple wasn't just counting on users and developers. It was also counting on Apple. It was counting on itself to continue to improve 3D Touch and increase its capabilities. But Apple hasn't done that. If 3D Touch does get the axe next year, as rumors suggest, Apple will be the one to blame. So what happened?

Eliz Kılıç posted a great piece on what's wrong with 3D Touch as it stands. The first main problem is that deep-tappable UI elements are indistinguishable non-deep-tappable elements. Users have to learn what works and what doesn't exclusively through trial and error — or worse, they have to look it up. The experience is not intuitive or obvious because there are no visual indicators that 3D Touch works on anything.

In her writeup on 3D Touch, Kılıç suggests that Apple introduce exactly what 3D Touch is missing: visual cues that let users know where deep taps work. She calls these "Force Decorators," and they're essentially little curved tick marks in the bottom right corners of elements that can be deep tapped. Uluroo likes this idea a lot. Apple could also perform a more thorough revamping of the OS to add more depth and shadow to deep-tappable elements, but any type of visual indicator would be welcome.

Another factor that has mitigated 3D Touch's success has been its inconsistent implementation across iOS: many iPhones have it, but no iPads do. The release of a 3D Touch-equipped iPad, coupled with software enhancements, would enable greater iPad productivity and greater interface parity across devices. It would allow Apple to make 3D Touch not a luxury, but rather an essential aspect of iOS.

In addition, one thing that reduces the utility of 3D Touch on devices that do have it is the fact that there are very few elements of iOS that are tappable, long-tappable, and deep-tappable. Links and Home screen icons are the only ones that come to Uluroo's mind; in every other instance, the lack of control density begs the question of why 3D Touch couldn't be subsumed by the long tap.

The fix for this is somewhat counterintuitive: Apple needs to add long taps to places that are currently deep tappable. More UI elements must take advantage of iOS's three kinds of taps — then 3D Touch will become necessary, not additional. This isn't a difficult problem to solve: just let long-tapping a Messages thread or News story do something, and then all three taps will have unique functions.

Until just a few weeks ago, it seemed that 3D Touch could be fixed with a software update and a new iPad; then Apple launched the latest iPhones and threw a wrench in that possibility.

The iPhone XR understandably does not have 3D Touch, and this has screwed up two things. First, the feature clearly was held back as a cost-saving measure, giving the XR an impressively low price. That the iPhone XR is missing 3D Touch is an indication to Uluroo that the iPad Pros about to launch will not have it, either: they're probably going to be cheaper than the XR's $749 starting point.

Second, the lack of 3D Touch on the iPhone XR is a sign that Apple does not see the technology as an essential aspect of iOS. To Apple, it's more of a luxury, perhaps. This is a problem because as long as Apple sells devices that do not support 3D Touch, it will never take the feature as far as it could. 3D Touch will never be integrated more deeply into iOS, never become the source of game-changing innovation, if it's limited only to some of Apple's products. That last fix Uluroo described earlier — adding long taps in more places — cannot be as effective when not all devices support all three taps. And not allowing all iOS devices to use this technology will always hold the platform back.

Of course, we might all be surprised and the iPads about to launch could be 3D Touch-equipped. That would be amazing. The ecosystem still wouldn't be perfect with the iPhone XR — which will certainly encompass the majority of Apple's upcoming iPhone sales — still not supporting the technology, but it would be a step in the right direction. However, rumors and software findings haven't suggested anything regarding 3D Touch on iPad, and the hardware required would also make the device more expensive. The iPad Pro is about to take a huge leap forward in design, and it will already be impressive if it maintains its current price. Apple's probably looking to omit whatever features it can.

Apple has trapped 3D Touch, the epitome of its engineering and interface prowess, in a cage of its own design. There are two ways to solve this. The first solution is freedom: giving the technology the attention it deserves and supporting it on more devices. That possibility is looking increasingly unlikely. Which brings us to the second cure for the deep tap's ailing. Death.

Right now, among the noblest things Apple could do is put 3D Touch out of its misery. This wouldn't be as good as fixing 3D Touch, but it would be better than what we have now. At least it would provide consistency. If Apple isn't going to let 3D Touch out of its cage, the feature may as well die. As much as Uluroo, personally, loves using it, he knows it's currently just dead weight in the manufacturing process and it isn't getting the use it needs in order to be worth its cost.

The ball is in Apple's court. Many people don't want to see 3D Touch die, and many would use it far more if Apple just showed them how. But if iOS 13 doesn't rethink the way 3D Touch is presented and supported by devices, it would be better for none of next year's iPhones to support it.

This is not intended to sound like a list of demands. But the deep tap as it stands is flawed, neglected, unintuitive, undiscoverable, and not widely supported. If Apple is not willing to change those things, there's no point in the technology's existence. 3D Touch was intended to be the future of engagement with iOS, yet only the iPhone has ever taken advantage of it. It was intended to be intuitive, to allow for more controls in a less cluttered interface; but it is difficult to know or remember where it works, and no one knows about it. The idea was brilliant; the execution was not. Apple had a vision of a technology that integrated seamlessly into iOS and its users' lives; that vision has never been achieved.

For three years, 3D Touch has had unaddressed problems. It's long past time for it to get improved fundamentally and propagated across the iOS lineup — or get the axe. Apple needs to give 3D Touch liberty, or give it death.