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Experimental navigation system guides cyclists using music


September 11, 2011

A research team from the Netherlands has developed a GPS navigation system for cyclists which artificially shifts music to the left or right to guide users to a chosen destination

A research team from the Netherlands has developed a GPS navigation system for cyclists which artificially shifts music to the left or right to guide users to a chosen destination

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Having a calming voice like that of John Cleese or Ozzy Osbourne shout out directions to supplement the visuals on your GPS navigation device is an effective way to make sure that you don't miss your turn. Relying on visual navigation is a big distraction for cyclists too, dangerously diverting focus away from the road ahead. To help overcome such issues, a research team in the Netherlands has reported promising results from an audio-only navigation system that uses an Android smartphone connected to a pair of headphones to help guide users to a target location with music that's artificially shifted to the left or right to indicate direction.

Headphone-based audio navigation aids have already been the subject of some research - such as helping visually impaired folks to get around, exploring virtual environments, improving safety for car drivers, airplane navigation, and in situations where looking at screens is not possible (such as when wearing helmets or pressure suits).

In a country where folks are said to travel twice as far by bike than on foot, four User System Interaction trainees from Eindhoven University of Technology have developed a tuneful variation of a GPS navigation system to help cyclists get around without having to keep diverting attention from the road ahead.

Where other audio-based systems incorporate different tones to represent various objects and waypoints, the team decided that its user base would only need simple directional prompts and felt that although a continuous tone could be used, this was not best suited for use in urban environments so opted to use a music source instead.

Let music show the way

The 3D-audio system makes use of our ability to detect the direction of a sound source. When a sound is heard, the human brain calculates the (often slight) difference in sound hitting each ear - a sound to the left of the listener will reach the left ear before it reaches the right - and so works out approximate direction and distance. Artificially altering the perceived direction of the stereo audio in a user's soundscape can therefore be used as a guide to a predefined location.

The team experimented with a navigation system made up of a GPS receiver, an electronic compass, some sort of computational device that also has audio output and a pair of headphones. To test the concept, a series of music localization and music navigation experiments were conducted.

For the music localization tests, two static, blindfolded participants were asked to point at a moving object based on the sound emitted from it. The second experiment involved hiding a sound source in a complex environment and asking the blindfolded participants to identify the object's location when the music started to play.

Blindfolded participants were then given headphones connected to a laptop where the sound was shifted from left to right by software, resulting in reasonable spatial accuracy. Next, the team used a moving sound source or beacon instead of headphones, followed by users having to follow a sound beacon around a maze created from office furniture where it was noted that users tended to head for the beacon by the shortest route, so if it turned a corner the user would follow in a straight line and bump into obstacles.

For the final experiment in the music-based navigation tests, two sound beacons were placed either side of the user, which were alternatively activated to indicate direction - making it possible for the participants to navigate complex environments.

Out of the lab and into the real world

The students then created an audio-only navigation prototype from a pair of headphones housing an Android smartphone positioned above the user's head. After working on an algorithm to calculate the correct audio balance needed to determine the angle between the user's head orientation and the target location, a software application was developed to artificially shift music played back through the headphones between left and right channels according to user location and orientation. The volume of the music was used as an indication of distance.

Making use of the built-in GPS and electronic compass of the HTC Hero Android smartphone, two different real-world evaluation tasks were developed - pointing to a location and finding a distant target.

For the pointing test, four users stood in an open field and were asked to determine which of five surrounding buildings had been selected as a target. No mistakes were made and users made their choices quickly. Moving onto the distant location test, two participants were instructed to travel about 1km (0.62 miles) from the starting point to an unknown location by bike. The only guidance received during the journey was from the 3D-audio system. The only mistake was to slightly overshoot the target.

"At the moment the prototype only works for predetermined locations," the team's Daniel Tetteroo told Gizmag. "However, we are busy developing it into a full application that supports navigation to basically any place in the world. The finished application will be available soon through the Android Market. Some of us have already used the limited application in real life and we're very enthusiastic about the concept. It's not just that it is an intuitive and easy way to navigate; it also has a certain fun-factor to it. More adventurous than just following direct instructions which turns to take, as you can just choose directions yourself, and still end up at your final destination."

Although it's true that some cyclists do use music players while on the move, cutting off or dulling the senses in this way could have a negative impact on road safety. The 3D-audio navigation system might therefore be used with headphones that use microphones to feed in external sounds for improved awareness of what's going on around the user.

If you live in the Stockholm area, you can download a free special edition of the app produced for the Mobile HCI conference by team members Tetteroo, Matthijs Zwinderman, Tanya Zavialova, and Paul Lehouck, and give it a try for yourself (Android 2.1 or later required).

The following demonstration shows the Oh Music, Where Art Thou? system being used:

About the Author
Paul Ridden While Paul is loath to reveal his age, he will admit to cutting his IT teeth on a TRS-80 (although he won't say which version). An obsessive fascination with computer technology blossomed from hobby into career before the desire for sunnier climes saw him wave a fond farewell to his native Blighty in favor of Bordeaux, France. He's now a dedicated newshound pursuing the latest bleeding edge tech for Gizmag. All articles by Paul Ridden

Clever, but I\'m not one of those idiots that listens to music while riding. I\'d rather hear approaching cars and other cyclists giving a warning before passing, etc.

It reminds me of a presentation on a new software application I attended once where the designers talked about their trials of all sorts of means of user interaction when they eventually made the following earth shattering statement: \"In the end, we discovered that words are a good and useful means of communication!\"

Ken Morrison

"cutting off or dulling the senses in this way could have a negative impact on road safety."

Not 'could' have a negative impact, it definitely does. It has less to do with the actual 'dulling' of you senses as much as that, because you have less input fr om your surrounding, you pay less attention to them.

""listening to sounds through two earbuds creates a particularly powerful kind of "auditory masking" that drowns out external sounds. Such masking not only goes directly into the ear, it also is involuntary in the sense that the sound floods the brain even when a person tries to listen to something else" say, traffic"" - Hal Pashler, professor of cognitive science, University of California

It's the same reason why you often listen to music while working or studying, because it cuts you off from the outside world. When you are surround by irritable metal boxes that weight ten times more that you you and are moving five time as fast, this is the last thing you want. Quoting form a previous Gizmag article; "Following a stream of incidents where teenagers or cyclists have been hit by a car or truck because they were listening to music with headphones on", this is obviously not just my opinion.

This is also why the rules of almost every cycling event I've ever participated in (both road and MTB), call for immediate disqualification for wearing earphones/headphones.


Note.. Harris Corporation and I hold the patent ..see patent 7,876,903 issued 25 Jan 2010, patent application submitted in 2006. Also hold similar patents in Europe too. Inventor - Paul Sauk Owner Harris Corporation


ACTUALLY - I once had a little pox MP3 player and I had to hook it to a small amp I made and put a little speaker onto each shoulder strap of my backpack.

It was good - because on LONG rides on country roads with one car every half hour or less - or even only 1 or 3 a day, it was a good way to listen to interesting and useful and even entertaining things.

It gave me AUDIO at a controllable level AND I had unrestricted hearing.

This system, is an actual severe impediment in terms of maintaining the "situational awareness" (I invented that term) of keeping up the 3D audio data stream - that includes the sound of vehicles coming up from behind and from a distance - their tyres and motors and all that - including their speed, location and direction.

Mr Stiffy

A second post - this device is a REALLY fast way to end up putting yourself under a car.

The second thing is that I mean I enjoy music / lectures and I enjoy cycling BUT only on quite country roads, or dedicated bike paths through parks etc - these things can be Hmmmm kind of like "tripping" or "stoned" or "not with it"... sort of like having to do a business deal and signing contracts while listening and watching a TV in the back ground....

Or people that use mobile phones when driving...

On a bicycle "YOU HAVE NO WIGGLE ROOM" in a collision - there is no rear quarter panel to get scraped, if you don't look before you pull out of a parking spot.

So if your wearing this and need to weave around a bit of glass on the road... and you didn't hear that car coming up behind you - because your an idiot wearing this device made by idiots, then your either thrown off, knocked over, seriously injured or dead.

Your on a bicycle - you NEED all the CLEAR sensory input you can get AND you NEED to be consciously focusing on it, processing it, and making rational decisions on the fly - as the changes evolve.

Restrict the sensory input by removing the audio data stream, then your decision making is impaired by that lack of information; AND the music you are listening too - distracts your attention from consciously making decisions, upon the defective and incomplete information streams from your surrounding environment.

This is a DANGEROUS and a STUPID device.

Also it's an expensive and stupid idea.

Me thinks a penciled in map on a piece of paper, effective, simple, cheap, needs batteries not.

Mr Stiffy

oh yes let\'s numb one of our senses and go ride on a bike with rider weighing 85 to 90 kg together and roam with things weighing over 2000kg,, yeah, talk about stupid

Bill Bennett

Finally a use for rap music!

..there's no bridge ahead so at the next set of lights you gotta turn right, else you'll end up in the drink and that could cost you ya life..

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