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Researchers develop GPS-enabled, wearable tactile device

Posted: 18 Jun 2013 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:GPS? wearable tactile device? accelerometer?

A team of researchers from MIT has created a device that uses the pulses of the body to generate information that could guide a persons decision-making with regard to navigating one's surroundings. Think of it as tactile Morse code: vibrations from a wearable, GPS-linked device that tell you to turn right or left, or stop, depending on the pattern of pulses you feel. Such a device could free drivers from having to look at maps, and could also serve as a tactile guide for the visually and hearing impaired.

Lynette Jones, a senior research scientist in MIT's department of mechanical engineering, designs wearable tactile displays. Through her work, she's observed that the skin is a sensitivethough largely untappedmedium for communication.

"If you compare the skin to the retina, you have about the same number of sensory receptors, you just have them over almost two square meters of space, unlike the eye where it's all concentrated in an extremely small area," Jones said. "The skin is generally as useful as a very acute area. It's just that you need to disperse the information that you're presenting."

Knowing just how to disperse tactile information across the skin is tricky. For instance, people may be much more sensitive to stimuli on areas like the hand, as opposed to the forearm, and may respond best to certain patterns of vibrations. Such information on skin responsiveness could help designers determine the best configuration of motors in a display, given where on the skin a device would be worn.

Now Jones has built an array that precisely tracks a motor's vibrations through skin in three dimensions. The array consists of eight miniature accelerometers and a single pancake motora type of vibrating motor used in cell phones. She used the array to measure motor vibrations in three locations: the palm of the hand, the forearm and the thigh. From her studies with eight healthy participants, Jones found that a motor's mechanical vibrations through skin drop off quickly in all three locations, within 8mm from where the vibrations originated.

Jones also gauged participants' perception of vibrations, fitting them with a 3-by-3 array of pancake motors in these three locations on the body. While skin generally stopped vibrating 8mm from the source, most people continued to perceive the vibrations as far away as 24mm.

When participants were asked to identify specific locations of motors within the array, they were much more sensitive on the palm than on the forearm or thigh. But in all three locations, people were better at picking out vibrations in the four corners of the array, versus the inner motors, leading Jones to posit that perhaps people use the edges of their limbs to localise vibrations and other stimuli.


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