In the late 1990s, Nintendo bundled a controller attachment known as the Rumble Pak with their popular Star Fox 64 video game. The motorized accessory attempted to mimic the onscreen action through physical controller feedback, and we'll admit that slamming into an asteroid after being instructed to "do a barrel roll!" carried a bit more impact with the Rumble Pak.

In the late 1990s, Nintendo bundled a controller attachment known as the Rumble Pak with their popular Star Fox 64 video game. The motorized accessory attempted to mimic the onscreen action through physical controller feedback, and we'll admit that slamming into an asteroid after being instructed to "do a barrel roll!" carried a bit more impact with the Rumble Pak.

Since then, modern video game systems from Sony's Playstation 3 to Microsoft's Xbox 360 have integrated vibration feedback into their controllers. What was once a unique new feature, now goes mostly unnoticed by gamers. But Ford Engineer Zach Nelson saw the opportunity to put a new spin on the old technology.

"I wanted to create something that expands the car's capabilities and improves the experience for the driver," said Nelson. His idea was to bring vibration feedback to the shift knob of a Ford Mustang Shelby GT500.

Nelson 3D-printed a shift knob and installed an Arduino microprocessor, LED display, and XBox 360 controller motor. The knob displays the selected gear and vibrates when it's time to shift. The car communicates with the shift knob via a tablet PC running a custom-developed Android app, plugged into the vehicle's OBD-II port, which sends a wireless Bluetooth signal to the shifter. This is all made possible through Ford's open-source OpenXC development platform.

Nelson says he's tested the shift knob on various other vehicles, including a Ford Focus ST. "The basic concept of my system could be integrated directly into the car, and used on automatic-transmission vehicles with paddle shifters with electric power steering," said Nelson, who has made the project available on the OpenXC website.

Driving enthusiasts might question the notion of a shifter that tells you when to shift. After all, the whole point of driving a manual is for greater control. For example, if you're merging onto the freeway, you might take the car closer to redline; whereas if you're driving for efficiency, you might shift at a lower RPM. We were also taught to bring our hand back to the wheel following a shift, meaning that--if you're driving at "10 and 2"--you wouldn't necessarily feel the shift knob vibrate.

Still, Nelson's haptic-feedback shifter is a cool example of how open-source software and 3D printing can change the way we think about automotive research and development.


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