Peripheral Vibro-Tactile Displays

If you are sitting, which parts of your body are currently touching the chair? Are you leaning on a backrest or an armrest?

Think about it! Now, you are aware! But have you been just before reading this post? Probably not!

This is the beauty of peripheral perception, i.e. perceiving sensory input in the periphery of our attention. Your brain perfectly knows how to process the touch input it gets from the different parts of your body so that you do not fall of the chair. At the same time, you can perfectly focus on reading this text.

Using our Sense of Touch for Periperphal Communication

But, could this property of our sense of touch also be used to communicate information in the periphery of attention via mobile and ubiquitous computing devices? For example, imagine a bracelet indicating the time remaining until your next appointment, or your mobile phone indicating that there are no unread emails, messages, or social network updates to attend to.

Peripheral Vibro-Tactile Displays

In our research on peripheral, vibro-tactile displays, we made first investigations to prove that such information presentation could be possible with vibration motors, or vibro-tactile displays, as they can be commonly found in our mobile phones.

Study: Exposing People to a Constant Heartbeat

15 participants wore a vibro-tactile display in their pocket for 3 days. The display was set to create a constant, soothing, heartbeat-like vibration pattern. Via mobile phone, the participants adjusted the intensity, so that the vibration was barely perceptible.

Death Events: Testing Awareness

To test whether the vibration was still perceived, it died after 15 to 60 minutes. As soon as the participants noticed, they had to acknowledge the death of the vibration by pressing a button on a mobile phone. In the study, the majority of the death events were noticed between 1 and 10 minutes after the vibration had died. This is an indicator that participants were still aware about the vibration, even though it was set to very low intensities.

Testing Ambientness

To check whether the vibration had left the participants conscious perception, i.e. the focus of attention, we opened a questionnaire on the phone once the participants had pressed the button. In 67.7% of the cases, the participants indicated that the subjectively did not think that they had noticed quickly that the vibration had died. Additionally, in 94.4% of the cases, the participants reported to not be annoyed by the vibration. These two results indicate that the heartbeat vibration was indeed not in the focus, but in the periphery of attention.


These results provide first evidence that vibration patterns can form non-annoying, lightweight information displays, which can be consumed at the periphery of a user’s attention.

However, these findings are only first steps. We need more evidence to back up the findings, and we need more insights into how to adjust the intensity of the vibration pattern to different situations, so that we always hit the sweet spot of being just barely perceptible.


The details of this study will be presented at ACM MobileHCI ’13, the 15th International Conference on Human-Computer Interaction with Mobile Devices and Services, held in August 2013 in Munich, Germany.

Martin Pielot and Rodrigo de Oliveira.
Peripheral Vibro-Tactile Displays.
MobileHCI ’13: 15th International Conference on Human-Computer Interaction with Mobile Devices and Services, 2013.

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How the Phone’s Vibration Alarm can help to Save Battery

Not sure how long my hero’s battery will last with GPS on and my phone vibrating every second to indicate if on right track!?!

– This and similar concerns have frequently been expressed when I presented the PocketNavigator – a navigation system guiding pedestrians by vibration patterns instead of spoken turning instructions.

To quantify how much battery power is actually lost to constantly repeated vibration pulses, I tested the battery consumption of two different patterns in comparison to a non-vibrating phone.

In brief, in my setup, the vibration cost less than 5% of the battery life. As comparison: leaving the screen on will drain the phone’s battery in 2-3 hours. In consequence, instead of draining the battery fast, vibration can even help to save battery if it allows users to leave the screen turned off.

Test Configuration

The apparatus created heartbeat-like vibration patterns, i.e. patters consisting of two pulses followed by a long pause. The apparatus was run three times. Each run used a different pulse length, i.e. 30 ms, 60 ms, and 0 ms (no vibration as baseline).


The following diagrams show the remaining battery as it changed while the app was running.

The battery lasted

  • 24.71 hours for 0 ms pulse length (baseline)
  • 23.48 hours for 30 ms pulse lengths = 95.0 % of the baseline, and
  • 23.48 hours for 60 ms pulse lengths = 95.0 % of the baseline.

Using linear approximation to account for the fact that the battery was never 100% charged when the trials commenced, we also calculated the trend lines (see Diagrams, used Excel’s linear approximation), which changes the prediction to

  • 24.18 hours for 0 ms pulse length (baseline)
  • 23.28 hours for 30 ms pulse lengths = 96.3 % of the baseline, and
  • 23.60 hours for 60 ms pulse lengths = 97.6 % of the baseline.


Battery life in all cases was around 24 hours, sufficient for normal use. Constant vibration reduced battery life by 2.4 – 5.0 % minutes. Increasing the vibration length from 30 to 60ms per vibration pulse had no effect on battery life. As comparison, when the screen is constantly kept on, the battery drains within about 2-3 hours.

Hence, the additional battery loss is justifiable when considering that at the same time we gain the ability to continuously communicate information to the user. When using short vibration pulses, desigers do not even have to consider the effect of the pulses’ lenghts on battery life.

Take Away

This data shows that the impact of having the phone emitting vibration pulses constantly is not very high.

This means that as means to constantly convey information, e.g. as navigation system that is supposed to convey information all the time, vibration has a much lower impact on battery life compared to the screen, which empties the battery in a few hours. On a Nexus One, vibration can allow to constantly convey information for almost 24 hours, enough for the typical smartphone user who has gotten used to charge the phone every night.

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