A Shape-Shifting Navigation Device For Both The Sighted And Visually Impaired

Combine mechanical engineering, experimental theater and an old dark church, and you're bound to get some interesting results - a new navigational device, for instance.

Such was the result when Dr. Adam Spiers, a postdoctoral associate in Prof. Aaron Dollar's lab, worked on a London based interactive production of "Flatland." Based on Edwin A. Abbott's 1884 story of a two-dimensional world, the production was held in an old church in London. Kept in complete darkness most of the time, sighted and visually impaired audience members wandered through the space four at a time while a spoken narrative and sound effects told the story.

Guiding them through the darkness were handheld, shape-shifting cubes that Spiers designed and created with 3-D printing technology. The user's position in the environment determines the shape of the wireless device. The top half of the cube twists to direct the user toward their next destination and extends forward to indicate the distance to reach it. Rather than look at the device, as with a smartphone, users know where to go by feeling the changing shapes.

"The simple idea is that when you've arrived at your target destination, it becomes a little cube again," said Spiers, who specializes in the field of haptics, the sense of touch.

Extant, the London-based production company that put on the production, intended "Flatland" to be enjoyed equally by sighted and visually impaired people. The company itself is comprised of many visually impaired members, including its artistic director, Maria Oshodi. Spiers has been working with Extant and Prof. Janet van der Linden of the Open University since 2010. They first received from the UK government for a similar project that evolved into "Flatland." 

Spiers has plans for the device beyond the theater. "I'd like to try this out for the outdoors - hook it up to Google and see what happens," he said. It's designed to communicate unobtrusively. Spiers is very intent on eliminating distractions, both for people with sight and those with visual impairments. A lot of haptics research focuses on devices that vibrate, he said. "It works, but after a while, it gets annoying, or distracting."

Audio cues are even more distracting.

"One reason I don't like using audio cues for visually impaired people is that sound is pretty much how they appreciate the world," he said. "If you visit a city, you look around and you get an impression. That's what visually impaired people do also, but with audio. If they're walking somewhere they usually know some audible landmarks - 'There's the noisy cafe on the corner, there's this fountain over here.' These things help to know where you are. "

The future of the Animotus depends partly on funding.

"There are plans to make Flatland a full on production, but for now it's kind of in research and development. We have all this bizarre technology with the audience in total darkness," he said.

For now, he's got a lot of data to crunch. One aspect he's looking at is how efficiently audience members traveled between the points on their routes. He was surprised to see that users walked only .3 meters less per second than average.

(Black and white image courtesy of Terry Braun.)