For people with visual impairments or blindness, wayfinding, or the process of navigating unfamiliar spaces to reach a desired destination, is a complex and intimidating task. Haptic Bracelet translates turn by turn directions through haptic vibrations to safely guide visually-impaired users to their desired destination.
Experience & Interaction Designer, Developer
April 1st - May 2nd 2018
May 15th - 16th 2018 at ITP Spring Show, NYU Tisch School of Arts, New York
Why haptic feedback is important for people with visual impairments?
People with visual impairments or blindness rely heavily on multi-sensory feedback from their environment to navigate spaces, but the auditory feedback from the screen reader tends to overpower all other senses and can be very overwhelming for the user to concentrate on what steps to take next. This could potentially put the user in a distressed and vulnerable state, especially if others in the surrounding environment are also distracted (i.e. smartphone zombies). To reduce the distraction, people need to interact with calm technology. It is a type of information technology where the interaction between the technology and its user is designed to occur in his/her periphery rather than constantly at the center of attention. Haptic feedback is one way to implementing calm technology that lead to user's unconsciousness to build a certain habit.
How might we design an affordable wearable product that gives haptic and non-intrusive audio feedback that is well-accepted for social change?
Me and my collaborator went to Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library and Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults in New York to reach out the real users. We did our qualitative research by interviewing them one by one. We wanted to understand the current methods they used for wayfinding; specifically what worked well and what needed to be improved.
Human-Centered Design approach to design what's best fit for them
I believed that in order to optimize great user experience, I had to learn directly from people with visual impairments personal experiences. I had to build empathy to be able to see from their shoes, even though I realized I could only get closer from their point of view. Every process that me and my collaborator did had to include the real users. We collected qualitative data from user research in order to validate the problems, until making the prototype and doing user testing we had to reach out directly the real users.
For every step in developing Haptic Bracelet, we reached out to our real users. We got a lot of insights from them. They said that they knew there were a lot of technology out there to help them with navigation, such as Apple iWatch. But those technologies were not affordable. New technology tend to add more features that they didn't need. Meanwhile their core needs for navigation technology were:
Long battery life
Implementing calm technology to help users navigate in space
People with visual impairments rely heavily on auditory sensor. Although mobile phones now come preinstalled with screen readers (ie. iPhone VoiceOver and Android TalkBack), Google Maps and similar GPS navigation apps are not user-friendly. They tend to overpower all other senses. Users sometimes felt they weren't save while they had to navigate themselves and listened to the screen readers at the same time. Haptic feedback is a calm technology to be designed in users periphery without making them as center of attention. By implementing haptic feedback, users would unconsciously build their habit to navigate themselves in spaces without had to rely on intrusive audio sound.
The challenge for wearable technology is how to make the product affordable, compact in size, and have long battery life.
The challenge for wearable product right now is how to make it affordable, compact, have long battery life, but still comfortable to wear. With that in mind, I knew I had to make the Haptic Bracelet as small as possible. Me and my collaborator used small components from Adafruit for the core technology. We also put in mind to make it comfortable. We used Neoprene Self-Adhesive strip and webbing for the strap.
In the making
Make navigation more precise
There are plenty of navigation app out there, but people with visual impairments usually used Google or Apple Maps. Combining them with screen reader was pretty useful. But, there was still an obstacle for them to navigate precisely. This was another challenge for us. We used Mapbox Navigation and HTML5 Geolocation to track user's location and navigate them. From our research, we couldn't find a real time navigation API (including Google or Mapbox). To make it more precise, we use TurfJS to know the radius of each location. This radius was really helpful for the intersections. That way, users would have time to think which way to go when they were on the intersections. I believed this solution wasn't the best way to make navigation more precise. But, hopefully in the near future Google, Waze, or other navigation app can improve the preciseness to help them navigate more easily.
How haptics shape user habits
Haptics are the bridge between human senses and technology. It is a series of forces or vibrations that will enhance the user experience. Scientifically speaking, haptics influence the nature of how human perceive the information and process it in our brain. Based on our research, if haptics applied correctly, it can build our habits without us think about it. For example, in this project we implemented short and long pulses to let user knew which way to go. Sure, there would be a learning curve. But in a short term, user brain would know what to do without they had to think what information they receive with the help of haptic feedback. So, we differentiate the haptic feedback into:
1 short pulse to turn right
2 short pulses to turn left
1 short and 1 long pulses to notify user is reaching the destination
3 short pulse to stop
After a long development phase including user testing, the first version of Haptic Bracelet was done. However, I noticed that we can't just stop here, it's only a proof of concept for now. But, there are still a lot more to do to in order to create a product that is well-accepted for social change. For people with visual impairments, they want a product that can be part of their life. A product that will not differentiate them from other people. For this reason, I hope we can collaborate with accessories designer to create a more stylish bracelet without losing its functionality as a haptic navigation tool.