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O Vibrating Gloves, Lead Me to the Cereal

When your eyes have trouble spotting an object, the latest in vibrotactile gear could speed up your search.
October 22, 2012

My keys seem to disappear just when I’m ready to leave the house. What follows is a 10-minute hunt, through closets and under cushions and into the laundry basket (did I leave them in the pocket of the pants I wore last?), until I finally find them in a corner of my messy desk.

You’ve probably been in such a situation, spending minutes looking around for a book, or your phone, when all the while it was right there, under your nose. You just didn’t see it.

A version of the Kinect system, altered in Helsinki, Finland, is being designed to solve this daily visual search problem. It uses fabric, four small motors, and the all-seeing power of the Kinect to guide its wearer toward objects using pulsed nudges.

Designers from the Helsinki Institute of Information Technology Aalto University, the University of Helsinki, and the Max Planck Institute for Informatics are responsible for the innovation. As they explain it, you hold your gloved hand in front of you, and the Kinect senses how close or far away you are from the object you’re looking for. It then vibrates to guide you in the right direction.

Twelve volunteers participated in tests to check just how useful such a nudge was in augmenting visual search. Their task was to pick out and point to a letter B projected on a canvas taped to a wall. The catch was, the B was surrounded by a matrix of Ps, making it harder to spot. With each successive testing round, the number of Ps increased.

The authors found that in the early stages, all volunteers aimed their fingers at the B at about the same time. As the scene in front of them became more complex, however, the gloved volunteers receiving touch signals started relying on tactile cues more. After a certain point, they were racing their co-testers, picking out the B on the wall faster than the volunteers who were just using their eyes.

The designers anticipate that a version of their glove could lead you to a particular book in a library’s vast stacks, or help spot your favorite cereal box in the breakfast aisle of the grocery store.

The gloves join a rich list of under-construction vibrotactile guides. In development elsewhere are haptic styluses that help stroke victims with rehabilitation,   steering wheels that give you tactile reminders that you may be veering too far out of your lane, and even bodysuits that teach you to dance

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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