Shape-shifting navigation device points you in the right direction

Shape-shifting navigation devi...
The Animotus changes shape to point you in the right direction
The Animotus changes shape to point you in the right direction
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The Animotus changes shape to point you in the right direction
The Animotus changes shape to point you in the right direction
Participants using the Animotus wore suits that wirelessly indicated their relative position
Participants using the Animotus wore suits that wirelessly indicated their relative position

Even in today's GPS-enabled world, asking someone to point you in the right direction can often be easier than wrestling with your smartphone. Enter the Animotus, a wirelessly-connected, 3D printed cube that acts like a sort of haptic compass. Developed by Yale engineer Adam Spiers, the device literally changes shape to point you in the right direction.

Spiers designed Animotus when he was involved in a performance of Flatland, an interactive play based on Edwin A. Abbott's 1884 story of a two-dimensional world. As part of the stage production, audience members – both sighted and visually impaired – were kept in complete darkness and walked four at a time though the performance space with narrative voice overs and sound effects telling the story as they wandered through.

In their hands, each participant held an Animotus that guided them by changing shape to point them in the right direction. With a multi-sectioned body created in a 3D printer, that Animotus alters shape in response to wireless instructions to indicate the user’s position in their environment. To do this, the top half of the cube twists around to point users toward their next destination and then slides forward to give a relative indication of the distance to get there. As a result, rather than having to look at a device, such as the screen of a smartphone, the user was able to determine their path by touch.

Participants using the Animotus wore suits that wirelessly indicated their relative position
Participants using the Animotus wore suits that wirelessly indicated their relative position

"The simple idea is that when you’ve arrived at your target destination, it becomes a little cube again," said Spiers.

A postdoctoral associate in the robotics lab of associate professor Aaron Dollar at Yale, Spiers worked with Extant – the London-based company that put on the play – to produce the Animotus to add to the interactive nature of the production. Originally Spiers named his device the Haptic Sandwich, but is now more accepting of the name Animotus, which is the name that it assumed in the Flatland story.

Taking quite a degree of trial and error to get right, particularly as there has been little previous study into shape-shifting haptic devices, the Animotus has been created to communicate with the user relatively inconspicuously. This, according to Spiers, is because most haptics-based devices rely on vibration, which can get annoying. Location devices with audio prompts can be even more distracting.

"Shape-changing is pretty new in haptics, so not a lot of people have done it before," said Spiers.

Audience members in the production of Flatland also wore suits equipped with devices to monitor and track movements through the performance space. This, in turn, supplied data to the Animotus via a wireless connection accessing a computer-based map. Spiers was impressed by the speed audience members traveled between way points on their routes using the hand-held device – even in complete darkness they only slowed their pace by just a few inches less per second than their average, fully-lit path speed."That implies that they were pretty confident as they were moving around," said Spiers. "They only slowed down a little bit, despite being guided through an unknown dark space by a wholly unfamiliar technology."

Spiers believes that the Animotus has wider potential in the world outside the theater as a silent guide for walkers or trekkers that would let them appreciate their environment rather than be distracted by obtrusive vibrations or sounds.

"I'd like to try this out for the outdoors hook it up to Google Maps and see what happens," said Spiers.

The short video below shows the Animotus in action.

Source: Yale University

Animotus - A Shape Changing Haptic Navigation Device

Freyr Gunnar
How is it better than a compus, which requires no electronics and no battery?
Bob Flint
If you picked this up without any explanation or instructions it fails. Ever pull out your phone an need a visual cue to orient to proper position could be with tactile only but visual is still the fastest.
A good start but something hands free would be ideal. Maybe something worn around the neck?
Hi, I'm the creator of the device and would be happy to answer these comments.
the.other.will - the neck is less sensitive to touch sensations than the hand, making multi-dof feedback difficult. Some work has been done on haptic devices worn on the neck, but these tend to only be able to provide alerting feedback. I chose a handheld interface based on the success of the mobile phone compared to a long history of wearable interfaces.
Bob Flint - the device is built with a number of tactile features (such as the raised triangle on the top) that permit correct orientation without the use of visual cues. This permitted the device to be correctly orientated by visually impaired persons during testing. Though you claim visual is still fastest, this is not the case if you cannot see.
Freyr - A compass only points north. This points to wherever you tell it you want to go (for example, a particular cafe). In addition, the device also tells you how far away you are from your target. In addition, you cannot use a compass if you are blind.
Feel free to ask me questions about the device directly on twitter: @AdSpiers Thanks for your interest in the Animotus!
Wow, I like it !! Its such an innovative use of haptic feedback. With further development I think there is huge potential for it's use.
I'm a bit lost with this one. To me it doesn't seem to change shape but rather the cube is constructed in two layers with the top layer orientating in relation to the bottom layer. Presumably that change of orientation/direction is the means the device uses to indicate the direction and distance of the target. So how does Animotus receive instructions...typed in, spoken to ? Is it the movement 'forward' of the top section that indicates distance and if so is it calibrated to a standard or always having to be interpreted through feedback ? It seems to me that while a compass uses NORTH as a constant and finds the target in relationship to that, the Animotus uses the target as the constant ? ?
Hi guys if you want to find out more about this collaborative project between Ad Spiers, Extant and Open University here's a link to all the info flatalnd.org.uk
Ichabod Ebenezer
Do you want Cenobites? Because this is how you get Cenobites.
"Shape-shifting navigation device points you in the right direction". That's NOT Shape Shifting. It's a cube with an arrow that just points.
Think if it could be set to point to one person. If you have a group where people tend to drift apart, if they had one of these it would be easy to find the group leader again. It feels like it has lot of potential, just can't think of to many specifics yet.