Generally speaking, the odds of distilling the truth from unsourced reports on Apple's plans for the iPhone after the next iPhone are about as high as picking up an Apple TV Siri remote from a coffee table in the correct orientation on the first try (less than 15%). Never mind that many such reports are undoubtedly fabricated in their entirety and serve largely to attract readers to the webpages where such content functions mostly as bait for the ad clicks they're meant to lure. Still, there's the truth, and there's the truthiness — as in the fundamental obviousness that 2017's iPhone will assuredly be better than 2015's — of course X, Y, and Z will be smarter, faster, and thinner — this odd acknowledgement that technology advances is at the heart of every Apple rumor, and it's this bit of truthiness that caught my eye in the tail end of Yuichiro Kanematsu's report for Nikkei.com claiming that Apple "will likely" shift major iPhone refreshes from every two years to every three years:
On the other hand, the 2017 model will likely involve major enhancements and design changes, including adoption of an organic electroluminescent display. The new device will also be able to create more complex tactile vibrations on the display because of a tiny, but high-performance motor equipped inside.
Easy to overlook, Apple's Taptic Engines are what power the physical sensation of feedback in newer Apple devices like the iPhone 6s, the Apple Watch, and MacBook — and in layman's terms consist basically of a sensor triggered by touch and a laterally moving oscillator that's able to create a number of tactile illusions when the device is pressed.
The iPhone 6s is the first iPhone to feature a Taptic Engine and no doubt most owners immediately noticed both its forcefulness and subtlety, its range of vibration variety, and its quietness when compared to previous iPhones' vibration motor. Notably the Taptic Engine is also critical in selling the experience of Force Touch, triggering the sensation of a button press at the perceived peak of pressure — a feat aided as Mr. Ive explains by the Taptic Engine's ability to reach peak output in just one cycle (compared to 10 oscillations on a "typical phone), allowing for precise feedback events lasting just 10 milliseconds.
Getting back to Kanematsu's speculation — as nice as the current Taptic Engine is, there's still clearly more that can and could be done with future iterations of the Taptic Engine, of which several can be directly or indirectly inferred from Apple's own (and many) patents. For starters, an improved Taptic Engine with still faster response times and battery efficiency could easily be imagined providing more touch feedback throughout iOS. A responsive keyboard, the feeling of scrolling up and down, the sensation of a texture when swiping between pages, the bump of a page returning to the top of the device when extiting Reachability, touchpad-like clicks (ala the MacBook's Taptic Engine powered Force Touch trackpad), and iMovie-like "bumpy pixels" throughout iOS and applications.
Intrigued? Well, best I can tell — this may just be the low-hanging fruit — as in the type of improvements we could see in an iPhone 7 and iPhone 8 using one Taptic Engine. Were the weight and energy consumption reduced enough, additional actuators could be strategically implemented in the Taptic system — used to either suppress another or supplement the Taptic Engine in specific physical locations, allowing for additional precision in how UI elements are physically experienced. Such a setup could allow for virtual home buttons, feeling the edge of a buy button, a more tactile keyboard, and still greater varieties in available surface textures that Apple and developers could use to enhance user experience be it by finger or Pencil, and equally important — exploit for improving accessibility.
All of this, mind you, well within the realm of possibility for iPhones (and any Apple device really) over the next several years. Beyond that we can all break out our gas masks with bongs attached and imagine the possibilities that friction, powered by electrovibration, across the surface of an iPhone would allow for, like feeling the virtual surface texture and even the "weight" of objects — apps would no longer be 2-D experiences, but 3-D — giving new (and possibly undesired) meaning to metaphors like "scrolls like butter."
That Apple is working on such technology for future devices somewhere in Cupertino right now seems certain — Disney has been experimenting with electrovibration surfaces for at least 4 years. Still, we needn't venture far into the future at all to imagine how much smaller leaps in technology — the "complex tactile vibrations" that Kanematsu refers to, could make an iPhone 8 a warmer, livelier, and more responsive device, or as Jony Ive might put it, "a truly communicative experience" — and certainly one to look forward to.