feelSpace research background

Learning the sixth sense - a navigation belt

The feelSpace navigation belt is based on 10 years of research at the University of Osnabrueck. In 2005, we started to investigate whether adults can learn a new sense - a "North Sense". In addition to our traditional senses, seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, tasting, can a human actually learn a new sense of orientation, to orient and navigate more intuitively, similar to birds, turtles and fish? To investigate, we equipped several subjects with tactile compass belts that continuously signaled the direction of true north. In these belts, vibration elements were integrated, equally spaced around the waist. Out of these vibration elements, the northernmost one is active at any time during the day. If the belt bearer turns, the signal moves around the waist. The belt bearers are, therefore, always informed about the direction of true north and about their own change within space.

Picture of the compass belt used in our research

As such, the feelSpace compass belt is a device to augment the senses by projecting the direction of true north directly on the waist of the belt bearer. In a pilot study 2005, we tested whether the belt signals are integrated into perception and behavior. The results turned out quite promising [Nagel et al. 2005] and the project was continued. 2011, after much improvement work on the belt prototypes, we conducted another study with seeing participants who trained with the tactile belt for 7 weeks. A battery of both behavioral and physiological testes document the changes in cognition, perception and behavior during the study time [ Kaspar et al. 2014]. A study with blind subjects 2011 revealed the additional benefit for those who are blind or visually impaired: The signal was helpful in the experimental tasks, but also during many every tasks [Kaercher et al. 2012].

Of those who participated in our navigation experiments, both visually impaired and normal-sighted people rated their experience with the belt very positively. Here are some quotes:

"In a familiar environment, I use the belt to verify my mental map of the environment, to understand how places are located in relation to each other. In an unknown environment, I feel much safer with the belt."(Visually impaired participant)

"With the belt, I dare to try a diagonal abbreviation. Without the belt, this would be too dangerous. If I get lost without the belt, I cannot tell in which direction I am going." (Visually impaired participant)

Others have said:

"Somehow, the belt makes distant things more present - seeing and hearing can only observe the immediate surroundings, but through the belt, I can connect with things that are far removed." (a participant with normal vision)

"Even though my sense of orientation and navigation is quite well developed, I feel safer and more at ease when I wear the belt. I'm really sure that I will find everything, everywhere, without a problem." (a participant with normal vision)

Participants consistently reported a feeling of security with the belt, of courage to try new ways. Also, they relay a change in their space perception - how the layout of the place they have lived in all their lives suddenly became more detailed and vivid. Based on their feedback, we developed the idea to create a device that would help in everyday situations- and wouldn't require the intense training we put the subjects through in the experiments. This is how we developed the navigation belt as it is today. We make sure the belts are intuitive and easy, accessible for every age group and also for the visually impaired.

Publications

  • » The experience of new sensorimotor contingencies by sensory augmentation.
    Kaspar K., König, S.U., Schwandt J., & König, P. (2014), Consciousness and Cognition
  • »Sensory augmentation for the blind.
    Kärcher, S.M., Fenzlaff, S., Hartmann, D., Nagel, S.K., & König, P. (2012), Frontiers in Human Neuroscience
  • » Beyond sensory substitution - learning the sixth sense.
    Nagel, S. K., Carl, C., Kringe, T., Märtin, R., & König, P. (2005), Journal of neural engineering