Want CNET to notify you of price drops and the latest stories?

Human cruise control zaps legs to send you in the right direction

Would you trust electrodes attached to your muscles to guide you? A new system out of Germany aims to keep your eyes off your smartphone by buzzing your legs toward your destination.

Leslie Katz Former Culture Editor
Leslie Katz led a team that explored the intersection of tech and culture, plus all manner of awe-inspiring science, from space to AI and archaeology. When she's not smithing words, she's probably playing online word games, tending to her garden or referring to herself in the third person.
  • Third place film critic, 2021 LA Press Club National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards
Leslie Katz
2 min read

You might not know it by looking at him, but the guy in the shorts has been turned into a human GPS system. Video screenshot by Leslie Katz/CNET

You're trying to find your way around Tokyo, but you're so busy consulting your mobile device for streetmaps that you miss Godzilla boarding the Namboku Line.

Bummer, right?

A team out of Germany's University of Hannover may have a solution to the eyes-down-for-directions conundrum -- an "actuated navigation" system that steers pedestrians by sending zaps to the legs to influence walking direction.

The system involves electrodes attached to the lengthy sartorius muscle, which runs from the top of the outer thigh to the inside of the knee. When signaled, the electrodes gently tug on the leg, a muscular contraction that -- as demonstrated in this video -- pulls the appendage slightly out and away from the body to guide the user in a particular direction. The result: "cruise control for pedestrians."

The electrodes attach to the legs. Hopefully they'll become less obtrusive-looking over time. Video screenshot by Leslie Katz/CNET

"The rotation occurs during the swing phase of the leg and can easily be counteracted. The user therefore stays in control," reads the team's research paper (PDF), which is scheduled to be presented at CHI 2015, a conference on human-computer interaction that kicks off April 18 in Seoul. The paper has already earned a "Best of CHI" honorable mention.

The researchers, led by Max Pfeiffer of the university's Human-Computer Interaction Group, tested their approach in the lab, then successfully steered 18 test subjects through a crowded park using a mobile device to communicate with the leg-attached electrodes via Bluetooth.

According to the paper, test participants reacted positively overall to being turned into human GPS systems, though they did express fear of mishaps such as "walking into a man sitting on the floor there" before seeing that their guide could lead them around obstacles.

Being trailed by a human controller with a smartphone clearly isn't everyone's idea of a perfect vacation. Eventually, Pfieffer says, the system could be linked to navigation apps that automatically steer walkers where they want to go.

"When I use Google Maps and I navigate somewhere, I am always pulling my mobile out of my pocket to check," Pfeiffer tells New Scientist. "We want to remove this step out of the navigation process so you just say 'I want to go there,' and you end up there."

In addition to helping tourists keep their eyes up, the researchers say their navigation system could eventually help disoriented seniors find their way home and firefighters maneuver through burning buildings. It could also be used to direct crowds to their seats or help evacuate stadiums efficiently in the event of an emergency.