In next-gen GPS navigation systems, feel -- not hear -- driving directions

New haptic feedback technology for in-car GPS navigation systems use touch, not sound, to give you driving directions. The tactile invention could help hearing- or visually-impaired people.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

The next time you're driving on the highway while talking to your significant other about what to pick up for dinner, your GPS navigation system may tell you where to turn by pulling on your fingertips.

A new University of Utah study finds that drivers can receive directions from steering wheel-mounted devices that gently pull skin on the driver's index fingertips left or right.

Now, that certainly sounds a bit strange -- but it's the first step in creating touch-based directional devices to help the hearing- or visually-impaired.

For the hearing-impaired, that means using GPS without cranking the volume way up.

For the visually-impaired, that means a cane that could provide directional cues to the user's thumb.

It's all about safety and investigating new ways to deliver information. The researchers responsible for the work are Utah professors William Provancher and David Strayer and researchers Nate Medeiros-Ward, Joel Cooper and Andrew Doxon, who are trying to bridge the gap between the blind, the deaf and cleverly applied technology.

It's an interesting approach to a fundamental quirk of humans: that our brains are really only single-core processors that can only truly focus on one task at a time.

The researchers' work doesn't mean you'll be able to chat on the phone and drive at the same time, of course, but tries to find other avenues through which to deliver simple, but critical, information.

The researchers' study focused on how humans process information, with focus on senses such as vision, hearing and touch.

"You can only process so much," Provancher said in a statement. "The theory is that if you provide information through different channels, you can provide more total information. Our sense of touch is currently an unexplored means of communication in the car."

The problem in the car is that nearly everything through sight and sound -- sight for the road itself, and sound for sirens, car radios and conversation.

To date, some automakers already use tactile systems to warn drivers that they are drifting from their lane. But these systems generally involve assisted steering, rather than informational haptic feedback.

In the study, 19 participants were placed in a driving simulator and hooked up to a device that comes in contact with the index finger on each of the driver's hands. (The actual point of contact? A red IBM TrackPoint for each finger.)

During driving, the TrackPoints would rotate in the direction the driver was supposed to go, gently tugging on the skin of the driver's fingers in the process.

In four six-minute driving scenarios -- two without cell phones involved, and two with -- the researchers found the following:

  • Without cell phone conversation: Voice accuracy, 97.6 percent; tactile accuracy, 97.2 percent.
  • With cell phone conversation: voice accuracy, 74 percent; tactile accuracy, 98 percent.

But it's not just in the car that this tech could be used (though if so, it would appear in three to five years) -- it could also be used for video games, portable media players such as the iPod, the military, air traffic controllers and emergency responders.

A video of the innovation:

Their findings are scheduled to be presented tomorrow during theHuman Factors and Ergonomics Society's 54th annual meeting in San Francisco, Calif.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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