Tactile Compass presented at ICMI ’11

This week I had the chance to attend the International Conference on Multimodal Interaction.It took place in Alicante, Spain, which even at this time of the year (mid of November) can be warm and sunny!

I presented the results from a user study of our Tactile Compass. The basic idea of the tactile compass is that vibration patterns tell you, in which direction to go, so you can use it as a navigation system but never have to look at the mobile device.

In this study, we asked 21 participants to follow three routes through the city centre of Oldenburg. In random order they were equipped with the Tactile Compass, a common visual navigation system, or both. In brief, we found that

  • with the visual system the participants walked fastest, which is a sign that the users had to think least
  • with the tactile system the participants were least distracted and paid most attention to the environment
  • with the combination of both systems the participants made least navigation errors.

For the details and our conclusions please refer to the full paper.

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A Tactile Compass for Eyes-free Pedestrian Navigation

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.


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A Vibro-tactile “Friend Sense” for Keeping Groups Together

Being able to sense the location of people can be beneficial if you visit a crowded, noisy, and chaotic place with your friends, such as a festival. Usually, for a good nightly experience, it is important that the group stays together. However, when everyone has different needs at different times (getting food, visiting the lavatory …) it becomes increasingly challenging to keep everyone together, which is contradictory to a joyful night out.

Thanks to GPS and mobile Internet, different solutions exist where the mobile phone of each friend communicates its GPS location to a server, which then forwards the location to all the other friends’ mobile devices. The problem with existing implementations, such as Google Latitude or Glympse, is that they use maps to communicate these locations. It is more than just inconvenient to read a map while walking through a dense crowd.

We therefore investigated whether the skin can be used to communicate the location of people and therefore be turned into a “friend sense”. Our solution is quite simple, as we wanted to implement it on everyday smartphones. The user can select to “follow” one of the friends. The application then calculates the relative location of this friend, such as “left-hand side”. This information is then encoded into vibration patterns. By learning the meaning of the patterns, the user can understand where the friend is without even taking the device out of the pocket.

We tested this concept on a festival with two groups à 6 friends each. Three of each group could sense the others while three only shared their locations. Over the night we repeatedly probed the participant’s mood and the subjective level of attention they devoted to keeping the group together. In both cases, we could find statistically significant differences between users and non-users of the “friend sense”. The friends that were able to sense the other were more relaxed, felt more confident, and subjectively devoted less attention to keep the group together.

More details on FriendSense and this study can be found in A Tactile Friend Sense for Keeping Groups Together, a work-in-progress to be published as part of the extended abstract of the CHI ’11 conference.

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Vibration-enhanced Paper Map Navigation

Maps are one of the oldest known information artifacts. An even in the times of GPS navigation systems, people still use them to find their ways in unknown environments.

One of the challenges when navigating by a map is that the map’s abstract content has to be matched to the traveler’s environment. It has for example been found that maps are easier to use when they are rotated so they align with the environment. We were interested if that matching would become easier if the user always knew were the destination was.

In our research we therefore coupled a GPS-enabled handheld with a vibro-tactile belt. The belt consists of eight vibration motors that equally distribute around the user’s waist. A built-in compass allows understanding in which direction the user is facing. The belt was then use to constantly vibrate into the direction of the traveler’s destination.

Traveler with a map and our vibro-tactile belt. The belt vibrates     into the direction of the traveler's destination.
Concept: convey the general direction of the destination with a vibro-tactile belt


In a field experiment with 16 participants we tested our approach in the wild. The participants had to reach two destinations, one with a paper map only and the other with the additional support of the vibro-tactile belt.

We found that the vibrational cues made participants less on the map, lose their orientation less often, and take shorter routes.

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