Hands-Free Compass Uses Haptic Feedback

If you’ve never experienced it before, getting turned around on a cloudy day in the woods or getting lost during an event like a snowstorm can be extremely disorienting and stressful — not to mention dangerous. In situations where travel goes outside the beaten path, it’s a good idea to have some survival gear around, including a good compass. But if you need your hands for other things, or simply don’t want to have to stop often to check a compass, you might want to try out something like this belt-mounted haptic feedback compass.

The compass is based around a Raspberry Pi Pico microcontroller and uses a ULN2803a transistor array chip to control a series of motors. The motors are mounted all along a belt using custom 3D printed clips with wires woven to each through the holes in the belt. The firmware running on the belt communicates with an Android app via USB to control each of the motor’s vibration based on the direction the wearer is traveling and their desired heading. With certain patterns, the wearer can get their correct heading based on the vibrations they feel through the belt.

While it does rely on having a functioning phone, a modern smartphone’s built-in compass doesn’t require a signal to work. We would still recommend having a good simple compass in your pack as backup if you’re going to be far off the beaten path, though. There are other ways of navigation besides by compass, map, or GPS too. Have a shot at inertial navigation if you want a challenge.

Thanks to [Peter] for the tip!

15 thoughts on “Hands-Free Compass Uses Haptic Feedback

  1. I made something similar back during my studies, where I incorporated navigation and patterns :)

    I’ve always found tactile interfaces to be underappreciated, but implementing them in an easy way is a challenge. Putting on a belt like these projects is interesting, but not something I think is feasible as a commercial solution. Perhaps motors in bag straps?

    1. I think I remember this exact project. I read about something similar probably >10y ago. I don’t recall it being about elderly. But people wearing a compass-belt for a couple of days. IIRC they said they felt their world became a little smaller, like they knew better were they were and where they were going.

  2. The Wired article:

    The Hackaday article about a DIY version inspired by the Wired Article:

    Reposts aside its always cool to see the projects revisited and tried again with new hardware. I can’t find the article on it but if I remember correctly the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer used heating pads inside the flight suit to inform the pilot about dangerous wing loading. It gave them the ability to “feel” what the aircraft was doing much more intuitively than with standard display systems.

    As small as cellphone vibration motors have gotten it makes me wonder if something more slim could be made to ride between a standard belt and pants. A band that sits level with the heart might be a better option as it would allow you to hang more tools on it like bio monitors and be closer to your body’s figurative “center”. Part of me wants to go the body mod route with implants and induction charged batteries, but a long term peel and stick “belt” with surface electrodes that give you a barely perceptible tickle is a lot more likely/feasible.

  3. A RasPi seems a bit excessive but I imagine it’s only necessary for communication with the phone. If you eliminate all that (if you’ve got a phone you’ve got a compass) then it feels like the belt is a bit too intrusive.

    If I were going to do it I think I’d try to tickle the toes. It would be invisible and non-intrusive and maybe even self charging.

    I guess there’d be a bit of a learning curve as to which toe represents which direction, but maybe little toe is west, big toe is east, middle toe is north and one of the others is south and you’ve got another toe for an add-in.

    Or maybe middle toe is “on course” and the other toes represent how much you have to turn to get back on course. But then you’d need a phone to tell it what the desired direction is.

    From a minimalist standpoint all you really need is to know which was is North. You can derive the rest.

  4. I wonder if this has the potential to be quite an interesting device, with long term use. I can’t remember where I saw it, but I saw discussion of person who had created a device to listen to WiFi signals and produce a tone/tones in relation to strength, frequency, direction etc. They mentioned that when using it, walking about the neighbourhood, it was akin to having a new sense, with a new landscape to “see” and you could figure out your way home via landmarks in this new sensory landscape. With long term use, this could really give you an additional experience of direction, maybe not quite so rich.

  5. A small team of senior ME engineers for their senior project, built one of these this past Spring at UT Austin. It has a haptic belt, an iPhone app and powered by an Arduino. It worked quite well on the team members. This Fall, the team will do a larger human testing to verify the unit’s usability. In the immediate past, the teams have added echolocation (like bats) and infrared sensing (like vipers) as well. See Ed Yong’s book “An Immense World”.

  6. Neat build, not new except for the pi.

    I was part of a competition team that built something very similar in 2009 for the Nokia N900 launch that used Mapquest+GPS on the phone and an old sparkfun i2c compass and an arduino to do navigation. We based part of it off an even older project that was just the compass, and even built in waypointing off geo-tagged photos on the phone. It was a really fun build. I should build a new one and see how it goes.

  7. I neeeeeed this for my nightly way to the toilet and than to the fridge and back into my bed. Without switching on the light.

    But seriuosly this type of technic exist as a factory warning system. In loud areas you get an buzzzz when a heavy machine is next to you, or a moving. Simply where accidents looks really bad when happend. Better not be a mashed potatoe.

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