Superhero Science: UIC Students Build 'SpiderSense' Suit


The suit allows users to navigate without certain senses. Lance Long/EVL

Have you ever wanted superpowers? Students at the University of Illinois at Chicago have built a suit mimicking Spider-Man’s “SpiderSense” by using sensory receptors to “feel” their environment.

The students in the computer science, communication and bioengineering departments were broken up into groups and charged with the task of making something that could “see the invisible.” Victor Mateevitsi said that he and his classmates were looking for a way to supplement the existing human senses, to fill in the blind spots.

“There are a lot of things that are invisible, but are deadly to us. Or, they may be a possible threat to us,” he said. “For example, radiation has no taste, it doesn’t emit any sound, yet it is extremely deadly. So we started playing around with the idea of what are the things that are invisible and how can we communicate them to the user without the need of a phone or a device that you need to take out of your pocket and look at.”

The SpiderSense is made up of a set of sensory modules that are worn on different parts of the body. They can be moved around, or concentrated on a single spot. But for the experiment the sensors were positioned in line with the two-point discrimination threshold, a way of measuring nerve sensitivity on areas of skin.

Brad Haggadone, a student in the communication department, who also worked on the project, said the suit relied on sonar technology,with a microphone to hear the reflection of a pulse. The microphone hears the reflection of that pulse and gauges the distance of the object from the user.

Mateevitsi said: “It’s a suit that you can wear and you can feel the environment around you on your own body. So, as somebody approaches, you can actually feel pressure on the part of your body that he is approaching.”

The technology is similar to the way bats get around, by analyzing reflected pulses of sound or energy. The modules can measure from five inches to five feet, inducing pressure. As an object approaches, the strength of the pressure increases with it.

This type of technology is known as human augmentics as it works to improve quality of life by sensing or monitoring factors of the environment that the human user cannot.The class that birthed this project was based on human augmentics. Jason Leigh, the group's professor, said that goal of the project had to do human/technology interaction.

"Well, the goal was to really explore if you had the ability to sense things that you aren't normally able to sense in the world, how might you be able to absorb that information and act upon it. How would you have to adapt to act upon this new information?" Leigh said.

The next step for SpiderSense research is to improve the reaction time of the modules themselves, to allow better recognition of objects moving at a fast pace toward the user or to allow the user to move faster without running into a wall. Mateevitsi said they would like to begin experimenting with sensory changes in the visually impaired.

Haggadone hopes that SpiderSense can go on to provide supplemental senses for people who are disabled. “I’m most excited about the possibility that maybe a visually impaired person could make some real-life use out of this,” he said. “For me, that would be the best-case scenario.” 

Originally published by Medill Reports Chicago



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