Touch-enabled steering wheel gives sat-nav guidance by pulling skin

Fed up with sat-navs' annoying instructions? Researchers at the University of Utah have created a prototype device that guides drivers by pulling their skin in different directions.

Automobiles

Fed up with the annoying audible instructions from sat-navs? Cheesy celebrity guidance voices doing your head in? Researchers at the University of Utah have created a prototype device that guides drivers by pulling their skin in different directions.

The system provides "shear feedback" -- tactile direction cues issued from a modified IBM TrackPoint mouse 'nipple'. When new directional cues are received from a sat-nav, the TrackPoint mounted in the surface of the steering wheel moves clockwise or anti-clockwise beneath the user's fingers, stretching the skin in a direction corresponding to the requested turn direction.

It's an unusual system, fraught with dozens of potential problems, but early experiments seem to suggest it's pretty effective. In tests, drivers following skin-stretching cues followed directions just as accurately as those following audible cues alone, but followed directions more accurately when facing distractions such as mobile phone calls.

The reason for the improved accuracy, according to the device's creators, is that while drivers may not hear directions, they can still feel them.

The system has plenty of alternative uses outside the field of satellite navigation. Notably, it can be used to warn drivers if they're veering out of their lane, though it may not be quite as effective as current lane-guidance systems that physically turn the steering wheel to get the driver back on the right path.

More interestingly, perhaps, the system could be modified to give guidance to the hearing- or even visually impaired. An operator could issue prompts to a receiver, which would pass tactile instructions telling the user where and when to turn. The operator issuing the directions could even be bypassed completely if the user's handset was linked to a GPS receiver and radar sensors that detect nearby obstacles.

For more information on this unusual system, take a look at the full University of Utah release here. Alternatively, to see it in action, watch the video below.

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