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

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39 Responses

  1. Andrew says:

    Would it be useful if it was build into a watch, given that when you are walking your hands hang by your side. When you are sitting at a desk with your arms up you wouldn’t want that direction feedback anyway.

  2. fkawau says:

    This is the proper h+ Magazine | Covering technological, scientific, and cultural trends that are changing human beings in fundamental ways. blog for anyone who wants to assay out out about this matter. You observe so overmuch its virtually wearing to contend with you (not that I rattling would want…HaHa). You definitely put a new revolve on a message thats been written around for years. Fastidious object, only uppercase!

  3. Bradley says:

    I’m surprised nobody mentioned it, but how about this in a necklace? Granted it would have to be made quite a bit smaller, but no big deal.

  4. Daniel says:

    This reminds me of another article I read of implanting a magnet underneath the skin of the forefinger. You gain a new sense, the sense of magnetism, and it moves ever so slightly underneath and you feel it and you can tell which objects are magnetic now.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I actually would love to try sometihng like this as my sense of direction, usually when coming out a building is horrible. It might help if trying to remember how to get somewhere (like a maze of cubicles) working the touch and what you see around you together.

    I can see this being sold on the internet of course, not in retail stores since of course, and it’s been said, the market is really limited. But at least on the internet, you get the whole world to show and with some marketing on popular websites, it might become something that’s worth investing in.

  6. Anonymous says:

    it needs to be made into a belt.

  7. Craig1st says:

    While the constant neural feedback offered by this device is interesting, the Silva pocket compass I’ve carried around the world offers constantly available magnetic pole orientation information with a more voluntary consciousness altering opportunity. Plus, while pulling out a compass on a city street corner doesn’t exactly reduce one’s nerd typing, it may be less off putting than a house arrest anklet..

  8. Anonymous says:

    Interesting, but I’ve heard about withdrawal symptoms occurring when usage of similar devices is discontinued.

  9. Anonymous says:

    I wonder if creating a heads up display kind of a thing would work. I am thinking not of displaying a traditional set of compass arrows, but rather just a color shading on all of what you see. Kind of a “north is red, south is green” shading over everything. I think there’s a good chance your brain would quickly adapt to that sort of unobtrusive information and compensate for it so that you would soon not notice the color gradations, but would just sort of intuitively know where north and south are all the time.

    Also since it would just be generic colors there would be no need to provide any real focus that the user could read. It should therefore require no sophisticated optics and a basic pair of glasses would do for the display.

  10. Justen says:

    Looking forward to constructing and improving upon this device when I get a little spare time.

  11. Tony D. says:

    Really cool article. I do think this would be very applicable to the military.

    Specifically, dismounted infantry, in the urban environment. You mentioned how easily it is to get turned around in an area your familiar with. Well, the turnover in places like Iraq is around 6 months to a year. That means new soldiers have to operate in new areas all the time. It would be great as it keeps a soldiers eyes up as apposed to consistently looking down at a plugger(GPS) and map. This is critical when patrolling in urban environments due to having to be ultra aware while operating in such confined spaces.

    More advanced development could include waypoints so a preplanned attack or patrolling force all know the correct direction to attack or move even if seperated.

    Also special forces operating at night during raids. A raiding force dismounting from a helicopter or fast moving vehicle at night must quickly orient in the correct direction prior to continuing. This is very challenging at night, especially in a dynamic environment.

    It would probably be useless for Marines though, because they never get lost…

    Tony D.

  12. Michael says:

    This is very interesting it should be possible to minimize this kind of equipment and maybe instead of buzzers use electrical impulses should be easier to make smaller.

    Hopefully someone smarter than me will make this in a wearable non obtrusive form. Most likely a best seller fro hikers, bikers etc.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Putting it in a Bluetooth headset would work, but it would mean your sense of hearing is constantly interrupted by the clicking, forcing you to focus on it all the time (could be handled of course, you could integrate it in music…) but this seems to be using the sense of touch to impart the “reality augmentation” of always knowing the true north, so it is not “occupying” any of your other senses.
    Personally, I think we are using the peripheral awareness much more than we believe; I remember going to Australia the first time, and constantly getting lost, even with a map (something I never get otherwise), finally figuring out that it was because the Sun was moving across the wrong half of the sky (zenith is north, not south, south of the equator).
    I wonder what we could do with other senses we under-use nowadays, such as smell?

  14. Anonymous says:


    Been done. Back in 2004. And better (because it worked while you drive, it gave much more feedback).

    • Anonymous says:

      I think that is just an earlier version of the same devise. It was a belt so it wouldn’t be sideways while driving. They probably changed to an ankle thing because the belt was large and awkward (and loud). But yeah there was that advantage to the belt thing.

  15. fotoflo says:

    Just curious. How long did you wear the device for? Is it possible your body hasn’t fully adjusted yet?

  1. November 3, 2012

    […] Sensing north & south […]

  2. August 7, 2013

    […] brains are eager to incorporate new streams of information into our mental models of the world (one fascinating example involves wearing an ankle bracelet that vibrates to indicate north). Past an initial period of […]

  3. August 8, 2013

    […] brains are eager to incorporate new streams of information into our mental models of the world (one fascinating example involves wearing an ankle bracelet that vibrates to indicate north). Past an initial period of […]

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