What if you could pick up a new skill without having to concentrate on learning it? Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have done it with Morse code using Google Glass and passive haptic learning (PHL) (learning a motor skill through vibrations from a wearable device while not paying attention to it).
A haptic system is one that provides feedback through touch. With Google Glass, the touch comes in the form of vibrations right behind the ear. The headset contains a small vibrating motor, similar to what you'd find in a typical cell phone.
In a study the researchers conducted, 12 participants wore Google Glass while playing an online game for 20 minutes. While they concentrated on the task, half the participants would feel the vibrating motor tap out each letter of a word in Morse code. A voice would also say each letter through a small speaker on the headset. The remaining participants — the control group — learned Morse code without the passive cues from Google Glass.
After each of four study sessions, the researchers tested participants on their ability to write Morse code, input Morse code on the Glass touch pad and write letters from Morse signals. They found that after four hours, the experimental group displayed more competence with Morse code than the control group. In fact, the experimental group was 98 percent accurate when encoding each letter of the alphabet in a final test. The control group was only 59 percent accurate.
The PHL studies group at Georgia Tech previously used similar methods to teach people braille or to play the piano, but in those cases subjects felt vibrations on their respective fingers. This study showed that you can also use vibrations elsewhere on the body, not just the fingers, to pick up information.
Passive haptic learning might be useful in several applications, though the researchers are quick to point out that learning Morse code probably isn't one of them. It could work well with various text-based interfaces, such as learning to touch-type on a standard keyboard. But it's not a magical way to learn anything — you're not likely to pick up a deep understanding of quantum mechanics this way.
In previous work, the research group found that people would forget skills over time but that it didn't take long for them to become competent again once they started using haptic technology. But there's a lot that remains mysterious. What's the threshold we need to meet to learn a new task? And how long would we retain that skill?
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In case you didn't catch that, we'll translate — in the future we may have wearables that teach us new skills without us even being aware of it. Imagine that.