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.

"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.

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