Tuesday, June 19, 2012

In-car displays you hear, rather than see

We still have a lot in common with our caveman ancestors. (Yes, I know, they didn't all live in caves. Some lived in forests, others in savannahs, and still others in jungles. But I'm trying to make a point, so bear with me!)

Take, for example, our sense of hearing. At one time, we used auditory cues to locate prey or, conversely, avoid becoming prey. If a cave bear growled, getting a fix on the location of the growl could mean the difference between life and death. At the very least, it helped you avoid running directly into the bear's mouth.

Kidding aside, the human auditory system has a serious ability to fix the location, direction, and trajectory of objects, be they cave bears or Buicks. And it's an ability that's been honed from time immemorial. So why not take advantage of it when creating user interfaces for cars?

Which brings us to spatial auditory displays. In a nutshell, these displays allow you to perceive sound as coming from various locations in a three-dimensional space. Deployed in a car, they can help you intuitively identify voices and sources of instructions, and help pinpoint the location and relative trajectory of danger. They can also improve reaction times to application prompts and potentially hazardous events.
Interested in this topic? Learn more in Scott Pennock's ECD article, "Spatial auditory displays: Reducing cognitive load and improving driver reaction times."

I know, that's a lot to take in. So let's look at an example.

Locating the emergency vehicle, without really trying
Have you ever been cruising along when, suddenly, you hear an ambulance siren? I don't know about you, but I often spend time figuring out where, exactly, the ambulance is coming from. And I don't always get it right. That's called a location error.

Such errors can occur for a variety of reasons. For example, if the ambulance is approaching from the right, but your left window is open and a building on the left is reflecting sound from the siren, you might make the mistake of thinking that the ambulance is approaching from the left. Your mind realizes, quite correctly, that the sound is coming from the left, but the environment is conspiring to mask where the sound is actually coming from.

A spatial auditory display can help address this problem by controlling the acoustic cues you hear. The degree to which the display can do this depends, in part, on the hardware employed. For example, a display based on a large array of loudspeakers can provide more location information than one based on two loudspeakers.

In any case (and this is important), the display can help you determine the location more quickly and with less cognitive load — which means you may have more brain cycles to respond to the situation appropriately.

Helping the driver locate and track an emergency vehicle

A slight right, not a sharp right
I'm only scratching the surface here. Spatial auditory displays can, in fact, help improve all kinds of driving activities, from engaging in a handsfree call to using your navigation system.

For example, rather than simply say "turn right", the display could emit the instruction from the right side of the vehicle. It could even use apparent motion of the auditory prompt to convey a slight right as opposed to a sharp right.

But enough from me. To learn more about spatial auditory displays, check out a new article from my colleague Scott Pennock, whose knowledge of spatial auditory displays far surpasses mine. The article is called Spatial auditory displays: Reducing cognitive load and improving driver reaction times, and it has just been published by Embedded Computing Design magazine.

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