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My New Sense Organ

Northpaw. Photo credit: Quinn Norton

I am beta testing a new sense. My new sensory organ is a small anklet strap with a LiPo battery and circuit board attached to an electronic compass on the anklet’s side. Inside the strap are eight small buzzers, up against my skin. As I sit here typing, the buzzer on the very left side of my left ankle is gently informing me which way is north. The anklet is called a Northpaw. My new sense is perfect direction.

The Northpaw is based on the Feelspace, a project organized by the Cognitive Psychology department of Universität Osnabrück in Germany. The principle is simple and elegant. The buzzers signal north to the wearer. The wearer gets used to it, often forgetting it’s there. They just start getting a better idea of where they are through a kind of subconscious dead reckoning. It started as a university experiment. They got the data, wound it up, and never intended to commercialize it.

Adam Skory liked the idea so much he wanted to make one for himself. He teamed up with some friends at the San Francisco hackspace Noisebridge and built it. In the process they decided that they might as well sell kits so others could make it more easily. Skory gave me version 1, and set me loose in San Francisco.

I think of myself as having a good sense of direction, and I do, in a way. It’s just wrong most of the time. My north drifts quite far from magnetic north. But it’s a consistent wander, still useful for navigation, if patently untrue. The Northpaw isn’t perfect, this early version has the occasional bug and misplaced buzz, but it’s better than I turn out to be. I had wrong assumption I didn’t know about, my confidence in my cognitions misplaced.

CompassIt doesn’t work while driving because the compass doesn’t like being turned on its side, as it is when you work car pedals. Magnetic fields mess it up (of course) and I can feel it circling my foot on escalators or seeming to vacillate directions randomly as I rest my foot on the floor of the subway. But that’s interesting too — to feel the specific places where infrastructure interferes with the Earth’s magnetic field.

I returned home to Washington DC to find that, far worse than my old haunt San Francisco, my mental map of DC swapped north for west. I started getting more lost than ever as the two spatial concepts of DC did battle in my head. Eventually, the Northpaw won, and the NW/NE/SW/SE on DC street signs started making a whole lot more sense.

My relationship with the Northpaw is still shaky. It passes in and out of my integrated experience. When it’s at its best, my awareness is not of the touch from the Northpaw, it’s the awareness of north from the Northpaw. I make it dance around by spinning my office chair, but it doesn’t keep up. I get nauseous and dizzy much quicker wearing the Northpaw than I do spinning without it.

My world’s Euclidian consistency is becoming questionable.

The Northpaw experience has been more about realigning my reality than about its being useful. It tells me more about the world, rather than giving me immediately practical information. But then, I have more a Google Maps than compass lifestyle.

Skory told me that in the time he was wearing his Northpaw he found that hiking trails were much more twisted that he thought they were. But even straight things aren’t that straight. I find roads and paths drifting in ways I never noticed. Not always, not a lot, but just enough to be unsettling. My world’s Euclidian consistency is becoming questionable.

Quinn Norton covers science, technology, law and whatever else gets her attention. She lives in Washington D.C. and is most easily reachable at quinn@quinnnorton.com

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