New Navigational System Uses Electric Shocks to Guide Footsteps

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Researchers at the University of Chicago have developed a new navigational system that guides pedestrians by delivering mild electric shocks to the soles of their feet. Known as FeetThrough, the system aims to overcome the limitations of existing systems that use vibrating actuators in shoes. The developers argue that these actuators prevent users from feeling the contours of the surfaces they are walking on, which is crucial for maintaining balance. Furthermore, the vibrotactile stimulation provided by these systems lacks high tactile resolution and cannot be used in barefoot scenarios such as virtual reality (VR) gaming.

The FeetThrough system consists of two thin, flexible arrays of 60 electrodes that cover the sole of each foot from the ball to the heel. These arrays can be attached directly to bare skin, embedded in shoe insoles, or integrated into special socks, with an electronics module connected to each array. By delivering mild electric shocks through specific electrodes, users can feel patterns on the underside of each foot, such as left- or right-turn arrows. Importantly, the thin design of the arrays allows users to still feel the surfaces they are walking or standing on.

In lab tests, participants were asked to identify both physical and virtual shapes using vibrotactile and electrotactile (FeetThrough) stimulation. Results showed that when electrotactile stimulation was used, participants were significantly better at identifying both types of shapes. According to Assoc. Prof. Pedro Lopes, the sensations produced by the FeetThrough system are calibrated for each participant to ensure they feel good without causing pain. While the sensations may feel different from typical touches, users can still differentiate between navigational cues and the feeling of pressure produced by the terrain.

The researchers will present a paper on their work at the upcoming ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology. The FeetThrough system marks an innovative approach to pedestrian navigation, providing a more immersive and accurate experience for users. This technology has the potential to enhance navigation for various applications, including VR gaming, outdoor exploration, and assistive devices for individuals with visual impairments. Further development and refinement of the FeetThrough system could lead to safer and more effective pedestrian navigation solutions in the future.

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1. Source: Coherent Market Insights, Public sources, Desk research
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