Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
A new haptic wayfinding gadget changes configuration to indicate direction and distance.
Animotus is a palm-sized gadget that hopes to help you get around.
Developed by Adam Spiers, a postdoctoral associate in robotics at Yale, is a touch-based system. Instead of relying on, say, spoken GPS instructions or squinting at a map that charts your path through space, the haptic device changes shape to point you on your way. One portion of the cube twists left or right, indicating directions; the other part slides forwards or backwards, denoting distance.
The device receives wireless feedback to help users navigate towards pre-set destinations. It’s accurate within about 30 centimeters, Spiers says, but isn’t calibrated so precisely as to help you avoid obstacles such as a coffee table or rogue shoe splayed out on the floor. (Although, he adds, localization can be further improved.) In general, it selects the most direct route from point A to point B, “but it wouldn’t try to send you through a wall to get there,” Spiers says.
Spiers initially developed the prototype for use in an immersive theater installation, where audience members made their way through complete darkness by using the device.
“You hear about people walking into fountains or crashing into lampposts because they’re staring at their phones,” Spiers notes. The device could eliminate the necessity of hunching over your phone’s map. And he also hopes that it could be a useful tool for visually impaired pedestrians who are used to tuning into aural instructions. “It would just work in the background the whole time,” he says. “It wouldn’t obscure the sounds of the city, which is one way that a visually impaired person appreciates the world.”
So far, testing has occurred only during the art performance and in the controlled atmosphere of the lab. Spiers hopes to try the device in urban environments in the near future.
The gadget is constantly being refined, a painstaking process dramatically simplified by 3-D printing. For the performance, Spiers emailed the hardware to the artistic staff, who could print and assemble extra devices as needed.
He designed the device to be intuitive. “We don’t want people to spend days or weeks learning how to use it,” he says. “You should just be able to pick it up and go.”