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updated 10/7/2010 10:40:42 AM ET 2010-10-07T14:40:42

A new device that gently tugs on the skin on a person's finger to indicate which direction a driver should turn could replace the talking GPS devices found in many cars today.

Scientists and engineers from the University of Utah who created the device are working to create a commercial version that would be installed on the steering wheels of cars. The new technology may also offer an easier way to navigate for distracted drivers and even help the blind get around.

"It has the potential of being a safer way of doing what's already being done: delivering information that people are already getting with in-car GPS navigation systems," said William Provancher, a professor of mechanical engineering at University of Utah and a co-author of a new study along with David Strayer, a professor of psychology, and Nate Medeiros-Ward, a doctoral student of psychology who recently presented the team's findings.

TrackPoint for the wheel?
The new device employs a red, rubbery tip similar to the TrackPoint haptic, or touch-based, pointer used on IBM computers.

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Instead of a user pushing and pulling the red button to move a cursor, this device moves forward, backward, right and left to guide the user. In this case, it gently tugs the skin of a finger in the direction a driver should go. Two of these devices are mounted on the steering wheel of a car where a driver's thumbs would be.

To test their new device, the researchers brought in 19 University of Utah students. Under normal driving conditions, the students turned right when instructed by either a voice or by touch about 97 percent of the time.

But when those same students talked on their cell phones and tried to drive, the difference was more stark. Drivers with finger-tugging directions turned the correct way 98 percent of the time. Drivers given directions by a talking GPS unit correctly changed lanes 74 percent of the time.

No panacea for distraction
The Utah scientists say results shouldn't encourage drivers to talk on their cell phones. In fact, many of the studies that link talking and texting with an increased risk of an accident are from the University of Utah.

The new device makes it more likely driver will reach their intended destinations while distracted. However, the new device can't help distracted motorists avoid collisions with cars, pedestrians, bike riders and other obstacles.

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Other scientists are encouraged by the results. "I have firsthand experience with some of their demonstrations, and I believe that as a general matter skin stretch is a really powerful and underutilized modality for getting information to a person," said Ed Colgate, a professor at Northwestern University not involved with the study.

Touch-based directions could have a wide range of uses outside of automobiles as well, say the Utah scientists. One of the most elegant uses of haptic technology, according to Colgate, would be a device that helps blind people navigate by touch.

The University of Utah scientists are already testing such a device. A video on their website even shows a person being led around using a haptic interface controlled by someone else. If the touch-bsed device were linked with a camera that could sense obstacles, the combination could help a blind person get around.

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