Pedestrian ‘cruise control’ will steer your muscles in the right direction 

Say goodbye to Google Maps! 

Envision yourself trying to navigate the streets of New York City, but too busy peering down at the Google Map on your mobile device, you continue to miss ever important turn. Luckily, a team from University of Hannover may have a cruise control-like solution for the eyes-down-on-the-screen-for-directions problem. That’s because the researchers have developed what they call an “actuated navigation” system that steers pedestrians along the right route by sending vibrational feedback to the legs to influence walking direction.


“Navigation systems have become ubiquitous. While today we use them mainly as commercial products in our cars and on our smartphones, research prototypes include navigation systems that are integrated with belts or wristbands,” the team writes. “These systems provide explicit navigation cues, ranging from visual feedback (e.g. on a phone screen) via audio feedback (e.g. a voice telling the direction in which to walk) to tactile feedback (e.g. indicating the direction with vibration motors on the left or right side of a belt).”

This new system, however, is comprised of electrodes attached to the skin over the lengthy sartorius muscle. (For those without a human biology background, that’s the muscle running from the top of the outer thigh to the inside of the knee.) Weak electrical signals are sent directly to the muscles, which interact with the motor nerves and cause the leg to turn ever so slightly in the right direction. This rotation occurs during the swing phase of a step and can easily be counteracted, the team notes. This lets the walker remain in control. So, could it be possible that these electrodes will one day be integrated into our clothing, giving us actual ‘smarty pants?’


After initially testing their approach in the lab, the researchers successfully escorted 18 test subjects through a crowded park using a set of control apps on a smartphone that communicated via Bluetooth to a prototype device responsible for applying EMS signals to the user with different impulse forms, intensities and activation times. This piece of equipment included an EMS device, self-adhesive pads, a Samsung Galaxy S3 Mini with control apps, as well as a custom wireless control board which was packed with an Arduino Nano (ATmega328), a Bluetooth module, a digital potentiometer, and a 9V battery for power.


According to the paper, 80% of the participants said that navigating distracts them from other tasks, such as from traffic, conversing with friends, listening to music, and talking on the phone. Following the completion of the experiment, users reacted “very positively” overall to being turned into human GPS systems. Participants also shared that while in the beginning they were consciously aware of the feedback, they “did not think about it anymore after just a few minutes.” Generally speaking, these users reported the navigation to be very subtle so that they could easily focus on their surroundings.

Intrigued? Check out the project’s official paper to learn more, or just watch the system in action below.

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