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Scientists develop device to control human movement with electrical shocks

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(NaturalNews) German scientists have developed a device that they say will help people navigate unfamiliar environments without the need to consult a map by directly stimulating their muscles, causing them to change direction without even being aware of it.

The "actuated navigation" system, also called "Human SatNav," was developed by researchers from the universities of Hannover, Stuttgart, and Munich. It is described in a paper released at the CHI 2015 conference on human-computer interaction in Seoul, South Korea.

The device can "provide an actuation signal that is processed directly... and affects a change of direction," the researchers wrote. "In this way, actuated navigation may free cognitive resources, such that users ideally do not need to attend to the navigation task at all."

Unconscious navigation

"When I use Google Maps and I navigate somewhere, I am always pulling my mobile out of my pocket to check," researcher Max Pfeiffer said. "We want to remove this step out of the navigation process so you just say 'I want to go there,' and you end up there."

The researchers suggest a variety of specific uses for the device, such as helping tourists navigate unfamiliar cities without looking away from their sightseeing or guiding firefighters through burning buildings. It could also "facilitate serendipitous encounters in public places" or be hooked up to dating sites to help strangers meet for their first blind date, they said.

"Imagine visitors of a large sports stadium or theatre being guided to their place or being evacuated from a stadium in the most efficient way," Pfeiffer said. "It may help disorientated elderly people to find their way home."

The researchers also suggested more recreation-oriented uses.

"In sports for example, it could steer long distance runners via different jogging trails on different days for increased variety and enjoyment," Pfeiffer said. "New variants of team sports may be devised in which the coach or an external player may influence the moves of the team.

Users raise concerns

So far, the Human SatNav exists only as a prototype, which was recently tested on 18 people between the ages of 18 and 27. For the test, the wearable device was attached to the leg and positioned so that it could emit small electric currents to directly stimulate the sartorius two-joint muscle that connects the inside of the knee to the top of the outer thigh. The device was controlled via a Bluetooth-enabled cell phone. In the future, the researchers hope the device can be hooked directly into a GPS navigation system.

When activated, the electric current is meant to feel like a gentle tug to either the left or the right, indicating which way the wearer should turn. The researchers said that it should be easy to ignore.

However, study participants reported that the change in direction actually happened unconsciously without the users being aware of what they were doing, although some did report feeling a slight tingling. The participants were successfully guided through a park scattered with obstacles and uneven ground without needing to look down.

Some participants raised concerns that there could be dangerous effects associated with giving up navigational control to another person or inanimate software. For example, the device could direct someone to mindlessly walk into a puddle or step on someone lying on the ground.

Additionally, the device did not work for all 18 participants. For some, it "had very little or no effect on walking direction," the researchers wrote.

"Given the data that we have, we can only speculate whether this was due to sensor placement, higher skin resistance, physiological differences in muscle position, or unconscious counteracting against the small directional force generated."

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