There aren't may quicker ways to becoming a victim of street crime than wandering through a bustling city, transfixed by a smartphone's map. So what else can one do, when lost in a strange city and in desperate need of finding your car?
A team of German computer scientists think they have the answer: let your smartphone's buzz act as a homing beacon.
Martin Pielot and colleagues at the OFFIS Institute for Information Technology in Oldenburg, Germany and at University of Oldenburg, have devised a car tracking 'magic wand', which they've shown users embrace readily.
Pielot and the team first built a car finding app, which they released through Google Play. The 6th Sense Car Finder app uses an Android handset's vibrate function to provide directions. The phone will buzz is the user is facing in more or less the right direction, with the frequency of buzzing increasing as the goal gets nearer.
That app was downloaded nearly 6,000 times between 15 July 2011 and 1 July 2012.
The team collected feedback from those using the app – having taken care not to record personally identifiable information. They then filtered that data further, taking out instances where the user was stationary – so obviously not following directions.
This gave them over 37 hours of live user data – as the app regularly sends feedback to the team – and covered 765 different users.
To work out whether the users were using the tactile feedback or their screen for directions, the team first established whether the screen was lit or not, as well as whether the screen was covered, and when it was pointing at the user. The team considered it likely a user was looking at the screen if it's motion censors indicated it was was tilted towards the face, but with a pitch of less than 23 degrees.
The results showed one thing instantly: tactile feedback was incredibly polarising. Half of all users had the functionality permanently enabled; the others never used it.
But for the half that took to tactile feedback, there was a marked change on phone use.
“With tactile feedback enabled, users on the move turned off the display more often,” the team wrote in their research paper.
Furthermore, the phone's proximity sensors showed that the phone was also covered – most likely from being in a pocket – more often; and they spent less time holding the phone in a way that let them check the display.
The team reckon their app could, at the very least, help cut down the instances of phone users having collisions with other pedestrians or even lampposts, or being mugged.
“We have shown that the concept of a tactile magic wand can easily be grasped by novice users, is well appreciated, and has positive effects that make worth its implementation,” the team concluded.
The work will be presented at the NordiCHI conference in Copenhagen next week.
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