Those with a good sense of direction can often “feel” their way to a destination. But for the visually impaired, navigating takes much more than a gut instinct. Soon, a new gadget promises to give those explorers guidance in the palm of their hands.

Adam Spiers, a postdoctoral associate in robotics at Yale University, has developed a handheld, 3-D printed tool that employs shifting cubes to help a user sense directions. The device, Animotus, has wireless capabilities that determine location in relation to a pre-set destination. The top piece turns left and right and shifts forward to indicate distance. Then, the section returns to its original place to signal a new step in the directions.

Animotus was originally created for immersive theater show “Flatland,” based on the 1884 satirical novella by Edwin A. Abbott about a two-dimensional world. During the performance, sighted and visually impaired audience members used the haptic tool to guide them in the dark as voiceovers and sounds provided the story.

Though the new age compass has an accuracy within 30 centimeters, it can’t anticipate or sense obstacles, and chooses the most direct path. It has yet to be tested beyond the lab or the theater but Spiers hopes to take those next steps soon. 

The tool could also be used to help sighted wanderers move beyond staring down at phones while trying to locate a destination. Spiers chose to have the device function without sounds or vibrations to make the shape-shifter as unobtrusive as possible in a field where haptic gadgets often vibrate and wayfinding devices are often audio-based. By keeping it simple, the Animotus eliminates unnecessary distractions, which could be quite helpful when navigating in a bustling, already-distracting world.

To see the Animotus in action, check out the video below. 


[h/t Popular Science]