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Hearing impaired? Steering wheel can guide you

Those who cannot hear spoken directions from passengers or navigation systems may soon be guided by steering wheels with devices that pull skin to the left or right.

Researchers at the University of Utah have been studying devices on steering wheels that guide drivers by pulling skin on index fingers to the left or the right, and are giving the technology two thumbs up.

The driver's index fingertips rest on two IBM ThinkPad TrackPoint buttons that move left or right by a millimeter to indicate which way to turn. Nate Medeiros-Ward/University of Utah

"It has the potential of being a safer way of doing what's already being done--delivering information that people are already getting with in-car GPS navigation systems," says lead author William Provancher, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Utah.

He adds that the study was based on a "multiple resource model" of how people process information, where our senses are considered resources that relay information to our brains:

"You can only process so much," he says. "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."

Tactile systems that warn drivers if they are veering out of lanes already exist, but these devices actually turn the steering wheel, instead of prompting the driver to turn it.

Using the new device, the researchers studied 19 University of Utah undergraduates (13 men and 6 women) in four driving scenarios, each one lasting 6 minutes and including, randomly, 12 cues to move right and 12 to move left. During the simulations, each driver's index fingertips rested on a red TrackPoint cap from an IBM ThinkPad computer that gently stretches skin clockwise to indicate right turns and counterclockwise to indicate left.

In two scenarios, the drivers talked via cell phone to a person in the lab while receiving directions from a computer voice or the touch devices on the steering wheel. In the other two scenarios, the drivers did not talk on cell phones.

The results? When cell phones were not in play, the drivers followed directions almost exactly as accurately via the touch devices (97.2 percent) as they did via the computerized voice (97.6 percent). While on cell phones, however, they fared much worse listening to directions (74 percent accuracy), yet were able to follow directions just as well (98 percent accuracy) through the steering wheel cues.

This "doesn't mean it's safe to drive and talk on the cell phone," says co-author David Strayer, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah. "It was a test to show that even in situations where you are distracted by a cell phone, we can still communicate directional information to the driver via the fingertips even though they are 'blind' to everything else."

The touch-based directional devices have the potential to not only help motorists and hearing-impaired drivers navigate more safely, but could also guide visually-impaired pedestrians using canes.

The team's findings will be presented tomorrow at the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society's 54th annual meeting in San Francisco.