On Monday’s post of “Science Explains Fantasy,” I talked about human echolocation and how some blind individuals can navigate their environments by making a series of clicking noises and listening to the echoes of the sound to detect obstacles. This method of navigation, also used by bats and dolphins, is an effective way for a visually-impaired person to explore their environment without sight.
However, learning to navigate this way takes a lot of time… so much time in fact, that the brains of experts in this method of navigation have been shown to be “rewired” to help process the information. Suffice it to say that it’s not an easy task to master. But what if mastering echolocation was as easy as putting on a belt… or seven belts, maybe? Well, it could be with the help of one friendly neighborhood…
SpiderSense. At least that’s what they’re calling the thing. Researchers at the University of Illinois Chicago have developed a device that allows anyone to be able to experience echolocation through their sense of touch. Inspired by Spider-Man’s similarly-named sixth sense that alerts him of danger (for instance, if someone were sneaking up behind him), the research team created a device that could do something similar. Take a look at the pictures below.
The above picture gives you a rough idea of what the prototype looks like. They’re a couple of bands with sensors on them (seven sensors in total), which are secured to the user’s body on the wrists, knees, head, back, chest, and shoulders. These sensors contain speakers that emanate a high-pitched sound (much like a bat does when it echolocates). The sound echoes off of nearby objects and back to the sensor, which processes the intensity of the sound. Once the sensor does some fancy math, it’s able to approximate how much distance is between itself and the object that the echo bounced off of.
To signal its wearer of the magnitude of this distance, the sensor is able to control a ratchet arm (see above photo) that presses against the wearer. If the wearer feels a small tap, this would mean that the sensor detects an object far away (a weak response from a weak signal). However, a large tap would represent a close object (a strong response from a strong signal). The video below shows it in action as one of its creators walks through a convention hall:
How good is this gadget at detecting fast-moving things in real time? Well, since the inventors of the SpiderSense were comic book enthusiasts, they decided to test the gizmo’s response time in the only way that seemed fitting: by having a blindfolded user try to hit moving people with foam ninja stars. They also ran a few more mundane tests, such as having blindfolded users walk through hallways or library stacks (as pictured above) without running into anything.
The SpiderSense is still in prototype, but it shows much promise. The concept of turning echolocation, an activity associated with hearing, into something that can be perceived through touch is quite clever. It demonstrates that although we possess or five senses, the possibilities for what we do with them are endless.
Furthermore, as a fan of fictitious echolocation specialist, Daredevil, and comics in general, I’m reminded by another startling similarity between fact and fiction. Here’s a panel of Daredevil (in red) explaining how his radar sense works:
A quick summary of his ability would be “echolocation with a tactile facet,” which is more or less what science has allowed us to develop. Granted, I’m sure that Daredevil means something a little different when he says “tactile,” but the concept that he describes is eerily similar to what we have.
Unfortunately, SpiderSense won’t hit the shelves anytime soon, but if you would like to see one in action, this video can help you build your own:
I sincerely hope that no one reading this ever has to struggle with navigating an unseen environment, but if you do, in the near future, science will be watching your back. Literally.
Jonathan MacGregor is a an adjunct instructor of chemistry in the SUNY system as well as a writer, currently seeking representation for his urban fantasy thriller, Blood of the Innocents. If you have any suggestions for future installments of Science Explains Fantasy, you may tweet to him (@JDMacGregor) using the hashtag #ScienceExplainsFantasy. Excerpts from his novel are available at his 20lines account.
Featured Image – Image courtesy of Televisione Streaming, ©2015, http://www.flickr.com/photos/televisione/19311804189
Spider-Man – Image courtesy of Sarah Ackerman, ©2014, http://www.flickr.com/photos/sackerman519/15387709933
SpiderSense Library – Image courtesy of Lance Long, ©2014, http://news.uic.edu/evls-spidersense-suit-grabs-national-geographics-attention
SpiderSense Closeup – Image courtesy of http://i.ytimg.com/vi/XmnM9XNglOk/maxresdefault.jpg
SpiderSense Ninja Star – Image courtesy of Lance Long, ©2014, http://chicagoinno.streetwise.co/2014/10/08/are-your-spidey-senses-tingling-this-wearable-tech-lets-you-sense-when-obstacles-are-near/
Daredevil Comic Strip – Image courtesy of Marvel Comics, http://www.theothermurdockpapers.com/2011/10/radar-sense-present-time/
Ultrasonic Spider Sense video – courtesy of Make: at “https://www.youtube.com/embed/IJHEQuAYw6A”