In the Spider-Man comics and movies, the famous hero's "Spider Sense" warns him of incoming danger, which proves to be just as important a superpower as slinging webs and climbing walls. Now a group of researchers at the University of Illinois in Chicago may have found a way to replicate such superhuman perception that doesn't involve any radioactive spiders. Using a collection of sensors placed all over the body, the group has designed a "SpiderSense" suit that detects objects in the environment and warns the wearer when anything gets too close.

With a tongue-in-cheek name like "SpiderSense," the suit might conjure images of someone clad in spandex dodging attacks from a supervillain, but the designers have some applications in mind that are more grounded in reality. Aside from the clear advantage it could give to visually or hearing impaired users, the sensors could help in other situations that might need the extra spatial awareness (like firemen navigating smoke-filled rooms or cyclists riding on busy roads).

SpiderSense consists of thirteen sensor modules placed on various parts of the body – arms, legs, chest, back, forehead, etc. – and connected to a controller box with 10-pin ribbon cables. Each module contains an ultrasonic distance sensor that detects objects up to about 17 feet (approx. 5 meters) and a rotary servomotor connected to a pressure arm.

Much like radar, the sensors send pulses and then listen for the reflections, while the controller box ensures there is no interference between the various sensors. Once a module detects an object, the servomotor rotates the attached arm to press onto the wearer's body with the pressure increasing as the object gets closer.

The suit was created by a team consisting of Victor Mateevitsi, Brad Haggadone, Jason Leigh, Robert Kenyon, and Brian Kunzer, all of whom also authored a research paper on the development of the SpiderSense. Mateevitsi presented the suit just last week at the 4th Augmented Human International Conference in Stuttgart, Germany.

The researchers also tested out the SpiderSense by blindfolding some volunteers and having them perform a few simple tasks like walking down a busy walkway and throwing cardboard ninja stars at certain targets. The test subjects had no trouble walking down hallways and detecting obstacles, but they did have some difficulty navigating through library bookshelves.

It's still a rough concept, but it's not hard to see how a set of wearable motion sensors could benefit a wide range of users. Even replacing the modules with different components (e.g. radiation sensors) opens the idea up to all sorts of safety uses. In the future, the team plans to test the SpiderSense with the visually impaired, fine tune the suit's detection range, and explore connecting the sensors wirelessly via Bluetooth.

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