“Ultrasonic Sensor” Suit Gives Wearers “SpiderSense” to Detect Lurking “Danger”

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
March 15 2013 11:16 AM

“Ultrasonic Sensor” Suit Gives Wearers “SpiderSense” to Detect Lurking “Danger”

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Soon you, too, might be able to feel someone lurking behind you

Photo by JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images

In addition to superhuman strength, the ability to stick to walls and ceilings, and acrobatic agility, Spider-Man has always had a vaguely defined ability to know when danger was near. It comes on as a tingling and tips Spidey off to everything from a sneak attack to a speeding bullet. Now, researchers have channeled that idea to create an ultrasonic sensor array  that gives its wearer increased situational awareness, or SpiderSense. Such technology may one day help the blind to “see”—or at least throw ninja stars at anyone who tries to mess with them.

SpiderSense—yes, that’s really what they’re calling it—is a project out of the Electronic Visualization Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Chicago. It consists of a series of sensor modules positioned across the body of a user, from the head and back on down to the shins. Each sensor constantly scans the environment using ultrasound to detect anything closer than 60 feet. As an object moves near, the sensor sends a message to a controller box that calculates the object’s distance. This information is sent back to the sensor where a servomotor rotates an arm to apply pressure to the wearer’s skin. The closer the threat, the more pressure SpiderSense exerts.

So, does it work? Well, in very limited testing, blindfolded wearers of SpiderSense were able to safely navigate a hallway, albeit one without any lurking supervillains. Test subjects also performed well when asked to identify individual pedestrians while traversing an outdoor walkway during rush hour between classes.

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However, when tested in a more sinister indoor environment—a library—subjects were unable to sense the difference between a stack opening and a half-empty shelf. Fortunately, librarians were on hand for a search and rescue, as they were trained for a general public that has no idea where to find things in libraries.

One of the biggest problems with SpiderSense was how the would-be Peter Parkers reacted to the system’s inputs. In a close-quarters environment, for example, the system exerted near-constant pressure, and subjects had a difficult time noticing the subtlety between, say, an object five feet away and one at seven feet. Perhaps with prolonged exposure to the system humans could learn to adapt to the new sensations and make better use of them. Of course, improvement to the sensors and pressure/distance equations might help, too.

“We made this entire suit using parts you can buy off DIY websites,” writes Brad Haggadone, one of the paper’s authors, in an email. “Getting high-quality sonar, increasing the processing power, and using Bluetooth instead of wires are just some of the ideas we are bouncing around.”

Despite its current flaws, SpiderSense and systems like it have obvious functions for the sensory deprived, like the blind and deaf. But super-senses would also come in handy for many vocational applications. Imagine the real-life threats firemen encounter in a smoke-filled, low-visibility structure full of overhead hazards. Bicyclists could use it to be simultaneously aware of passing and incoming traffic. One day, your increasingly blind grandparents might even have sensors on their slippers to help them get around safely. (Or as io9’s Lauren Davis points out, we could couple it with the Air Force’s vacuum-powered wall-crawler and just make a go of a real spider-suit.)

In a final test, the EVL team had a test subject stand still in an open environment while a “threat” approached from randomized directions. Not only did the subject successfully recognize danger coming from every angle, but he or she was able to hit the threat with a cardboard shuriken. (A shuriken is a Japanese throwing weapon. I officially love the Electronic Visualization Laboratory.)

"We humans have the senses that we are born with and we can't extend them," one of the paper’s other authors, Victor Mateevisti, told Hal Hodson at the New Scientist. "But there are some threats which are very deadly, but we can't sense them, like radiation. Electronic sensors can feel those threats."

No, SpiderSense is not perfect. It will require much, much more development and testing before you want to rely on it against the likes of Dr. Octopus—or your local library. But give it time and the human body learns to do unthinkable things with information. Some cyborg pioneers are already equipping themselves with RFID, magnets, and electrodes, as my Future Tense colleague Will Oremus detailed this week.

And lest you think these newfangled inputs too much for the brain to ever comprehend, consider for a hot second the idea of Braille: tiny, numerous bumps perceived by fingertips, then translated into sounds, words, and ideas. Now that’s a freaking super-sense.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Jason Bittel serves up science for picky eaters on his website, BittelMeThis.com. He lives in Pittsburgh. Follow him on Twitter.