Feel the Way With a Vibrotactile Compass: Does a Navigational Aid Aid Navigation?

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Knowing where north is provides a navigator with invaluable information for learning and recalling a space, particularly in places with limited navigational cues, like complex indoor environments. Although north is effectively used by orienteers, pilots, and military personnel, very little is known about whether nonexpert populations can or will use north to create an accurate representation of an indoor space. In the current study, we taught people 2 nonoverlapping routes through a complex indoor environment, with which they were not familiar—a university hospital with few windows and several turns. Along 1 route, they wore a vibrotactile compass on their arm, which vibrated continuously indicating the direction of north. Along the other route, they were only told where north was at the start of the route. At the beginning, the end, and back at the beginning of each route, participants pointed to well-known landmarks in the surrounding city and campus (external landmarks), and newly learned landmarks in the hospital (internal landmarks). We found improved performance with the compass only for external landmarks, driven by people’s use of the availability of north to orient these judgments. No such improved orientation occurred for the internal landmarks. These findings reveal the utility of vibrotactile compasses for learning new indoor spaces. We speculate that such cues help users map new spaces onto familiar spaces or to familiar reference frames.

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