We heard last month that AT&T was testing a vibration-enhanced steering wheel with Carnegie Mellon University, and now we've just had a chance to see how well it can give turn-by-turn directions. The wheel itself isn't anywhere near a production model — as you can see it's just 20 memory foam-mounted vibration actuators taped onto a Logitech Formula Force GP racing wheel that's all controlled by an Arduino board — but the researchers say that there's another prototype wheel in the labs that has a much more streamlined design. On the model we saw today there are 20 different actuators evenly spaced around the wheel, and counterclockwise and clockwise vibration patterns tell you whether you should turn left or right, respectively.
It all sounds a bit overly-simplistic, but it's important to remember that the wheel is intended to replace the voice element of a traditional GPS unit — not the screen. The researchers have thought up a few clever ways to convey important navigation information to the driver. Currently, the vibration pattern telling you to turn left or right speeds up the closer you get to your next turn, and in practice we found it logical what information the wheel was trying to convey to us. Thankfully, there are also enough points of contact with one hand so that you can still get navigation commands even if you aren't strictly adhering to the 9 and 3 hand position. While only left and right commands are supported at the moment, the researchers are experimenting with putting motors into the seat back that vibrate on your left or right side to warn you that someone's in your blind spot when you switch on the turn indicator. They're also working on how to indicate whether it's a sharp turn or not, but, try as we did, the researcher remained tight-lipped over how they'll pull it off.