Stairway to anywhere

Satellite navigation technology combined with MP3 players could help help people find their way around cities.

Computer scientists at Swansea University are researching ways of using GPS satellite navigation technology combined with music playing devices such as MP3 players to help people find their way around cities.

Users can programme a destination into a handheld device, and then listen to their usual music through headphones as they make their way towards the goal. If the user is heading in the right direction, the music is clear and strong through both headphones.

But if the user needs to change direction, the balance changes, with clarity and volume shifting to the left or right ear according to the direction to be taken.

A prototype of the system was developed several years ago by Dr Matt Jones, a Senior Lecturer in Swansea University’s Department of Computer Science, while he was working at a university in New Zealand. Now Dr Jones is developing the technology further to enable users to make better use of the system, and in new ways.

‘We are particularly interested in redefining how people interact with computers, and how we can make computers more actively responsive to their needs. So we’re looking at how we can use the music people are listening to in order to prompt them to take notice of things that might be of interest to them,’ Dr. Jones said.

‘For instance, if your handheld device knows that the user likes art galleries, it can give a ‘nudge’ when they’re in the vicinity of a gallery. The nudge would either be a physical tap or vibration from the device, or it could be given audibly by changing the balance of the music being listened to.’

If the user decides to follow the cues to see what the device thinks is of interest, the system will then guide them to the destination. And if users ignore the hints, the device will stop nudging – until it comes across something else of potential interest.

‘Normally, when we listen to music through headphones, we do so to shut the world out. This system allows the world to seep in when users let it,’ said Dr Jones.

‘It enhances our interaction with computers in the real world, allowing them to talk back and actively provide information to us, rather than waiting for us to come along and tap them for knowledge.’

A three-year project to look at these concepts will begin this month. Funded with a grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the research is being undertaken in collaboration with Glasgow University.