(Also, an oops here: I wrote this last week, and forgot to publish it)
I thought their new research was particularly timely, given the fact that NZ has now banned the use of mobile phones in cars unless using a headset/hands-free kit (and some interesting debates can be had on the subject of whether even these should be allowed).
The thing is, even if one is not actually holding a mobile phone, a conversation can be distracting. Very. And Ophir and his colleagues have been trying to find ways to make these conversations less dangerous - after all, we all know that people are not, en masse, suddenly going to pull over for mobile conversations.
They looked, basically, at making the cell phone-originating voice move around the car. Not, as I first thought, in a sort of left-right pan, necessarily, but more having the voice speaking from head level, or from floor level. Reasoning etc below:
"Ophir designed a system that puts the voice up at the driver’s level when road conditions are relatively safe, then drops it down to the driver’s feet when conditions are more hazardous. He says he could have done it the opposite way and it appears that it would have worked equally well, but that research has shown that voices coming from lower than the speaker are less dominant, hence his choice of high and low. He tested the system with drivers in a simulator, and found that drivers quickly learned that a change in position of the voice meant, “Pay attention to the road!” They later rated the cell phone conversation as less distracting when the sound was coming from their feet.
In the real world, Ophir sees this system linked to the driver’s GPS and a database of accidents, to identify potentially treacherous areas of road."
Critically, they were wanting to find a technique that would work for both high and low multitaskers (a small note of glee for us high multitaskers: while we may not be as good at a single task, apparently we might be slightly safer drivers when having a mobile phone conversation).
Apparently, the research is, hopefully, going to be published soon.