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'Spider Sense' suit trades sight for touch

Spider suit 1
The inventor wears hisVictor Mateevitsi

A student project has resulted in a suit that mimics Spider-Man's famous "spider sense," allowing the wearer to sense obstacles and other people without the benefit of sight. It still has a ways to go, though, so using it to fight crime is not advised.

Victor Mateevisti at the University of Illinois, Chicago decided to investigate whether something like an enhanced sense of one's environment can be created with off-the-shelf sensors and hardware. The answer is: Not quite yet, but we're getting there.

The suit consists of ultrasonic rangefinders placed at various attitudes that feed into a central processor. That processor sends signals to small mechanical arms that put pressure on the body in the general region of the object detected.

The approach is similar to that of the Tacit, a hand-worn "sonar for the blind" that translates distance into pressure, but the SpiderSense suit detects its environment in several directions at once.

The test subject attempts to hit an experimenter with a cardboard throwing star.Victor Mateevitsi

So, for example, if a person were to approach someone wearing this suit from behind, the sensor would detect that person when they came in range and pressure would be applied to the user's back. If they came from the left, pressure would be applied on the left.

Experiments with a blindfolded test subject had mixed results. In some situations, such as a simple hallway or open area with pedestrians coming and going, the test subject could accurately detect the direction and distance of obstacles (and even hit them with cardboard throwing stars made for that purpose).

On the other hand, navigating the aisles of the library proved impractical: the narrow corridors and openings didn't produce intelligible information.

Mateevitsi told New Scientist that the goal isn't necessarily a whole suit. A limited version of the system could be used by a bicyclist to be better aware of traffic behind him, for instance.

The results and methodology of the project can be viewed in Mateevitsi's paper (PDF); The findings will also be presented next week at the Augmented Human conference in Stuttgart, Germany.

Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.