From a design standpoint, how do you increase the information made available to the driver of a car? More and more cars are coming with built-in dashboard screens, but it's obvious that anything that takes the driver's eyes off the road is a bad idea. Audio cues provided by turn-by-turn GPS are a step in the right direction. Another non-visual method of communication, now being experimented with by a research team at Carnegie Mellon, is to use steering wheels equipped with haptic feedback mechanisms.
In conjunction with AT&T Labs, Carnegie Mellon's Human Computer Interaction Institute researchers are using mechanics more sophisticated that current iterations of the technology, which can merely vibrate: Vibrating steering wheels already are used by some car makers to alert drivers to such things as road hazards. But the haptic steering wheel under development by AT&T is capable of unusually nuanced pulsations and thus can convey more information. Twenty actuators on the rim of the AT&T wheel can be fired in any order. In this study, firing them in a clockwise sequence told a driver to turn right, while a counterclockwise sequence signaled a left turn.
The research thus far indicates that it is a cocktail of stimuli—sight, sound, vibration—that communicate information most effectively to a driver. At least younger drivers, that is; perhaps unsurprisingly, older drivers were more likely to be overwhelmed by what they perceive as too much sensory input. "Our findings suggest that, as navigation systems become more elaborate, it would be best to personalize the sensory feedback system based, at least in part, on the driver's age," said SeungJun Kim, an HCII systems scientist.