As new tracking technologies emerge that promise a future where nothing is ever lost, researchers are taking the idea one step further. Why spend precious minutes following sound or visual cues when electrical muscle stimulation can automatically turn your head toward the location of a misplaced item? That’s not scary at all.
Despite all the very serious and real concerns about their misuse for stalking, when it comes to using AirTags to find a lost item like a set of keys, Apple’s implementation is quite clever. In addition to emitting sound cues, connected mobile devices can provide on-screen visual clues as to which direction the lost item can be located, and roughly how far away it is. But even an animated directional arrow on a screen doesn’t provide a completely accurate way to find a missing item. It doesn’t indicate, for example, if an item was left on top of a fridge, inside it, or if it was accidentally kicked underneath it. It’s why AirTags will also chirp, providing extra cues to someone trying to find the exact location of the trackers. But what if there were an even more straightforward approach?
Researchers from the University of Chicago’s Computer Science Department’s Human Computer Integration Lab propose a radically different idea. Remember that scene in Jurassic Park where Sam Neill’s Alan Grant has to physically turn the head of Laura Dern’s distracted Ellie Sattler to get her to see a towering brachiosaurus walking by? If you replaced Alan Grant’s hand with probes that electrically stimulated Ellie Sattler’s neck muscles to force her head to automatically turn to the left, then you more or less understand what these researchers are proposing.
In a paper published for the 2022 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI, for short) which is currently taking place in New Orleans, the researchers detail an approach they’re calling Electrical Head Actuation, where visual and auditory cues used to help locate an object are replaced with electrical neck muscle stimulation that directly manipulates the orientation of a user’s head: left and right or up and down.
The electrical stimulation isn’t strong enough to cause pain or unpleasant sensations, although experiencing your head being turned all on its own would probably be an unsettling feeling for many. On one hand, the approach sounds a little over the top, but on the other hand, if you’ve ever been in a situation where you’ve frantically searched for something only to find it sitting right in front of you the entire time, maybe the idea has some merit?
Don’t expect electrical neck muscle stimulation to be a new feature rolled out with the next generation of Apple’s AirTag trackers—it’s doubtful any users will want to spend 10 minutes every morning sticking electrical probes all over their necks just to make it slightly easier to find their keys. But the researchers propose some other interesting applications when the technology is paired with virtual reality or augmented reality headsets.
Electrical Head Actuation could be a more realistic approach to force feedback, especially in games where players take damage. Take a boxing game, where an opponent landing a blow could temporarily turn a player’s head and distract them from a follow-up barrage of punches, as would happen in a real bout. It could also be used for navigation, such as inside a building that’s being evacuated. A user’s head could automatically turn in the direction they need to go, eliminating the need for visual cues, which in some situations could be an unwanted or dangerous distraction.