The idea came up when I was heading back to the hotel from a conference dinner at MobileHCI 2008 in Amsterdam. I had no orientation. The only guide I had was a map on my Nokia phone. Not being familiar with Amsterdam, the route let me right through the busy areas of the city center.
The day before, a cyclist had stolen a mobile phone right out of the hand of another conference attendee. Knowing that made me quite afraid something similar could happen to me too. Without the phone I would have been completely lost.
Here, serendipity hit. Since my research group was already working on tactile displays for navigation and orientation, I wondered whether it was possible to create a navigation system for mobile phones that guided by vibration only, so it could be left in the pocket.
Back at OFFIS we quickly tested a few prototypes, including a hot/cold metaphor and a compass metaphor. The compass metaphor prevailed. The design was to encode the direction the user should be heading (forward, left, right, backwards) in different vibration patterns. Our testing participants liked that design most. Later we tested the vibration compass design a forest and found that it can replace navigation with a map.
The development and the studies was presented at the 13th IFIP TCI3 Conference in Human-Computer Interaction (INTERACT) in Lisbon, Portugal in September 2011. The article is available here.
If you own an Android phone you can try this vibration compass by downloading our PocketNavigator navigation application for free from the Android market.