Changes in gravity can make walking difficult for space explorers, and that's before you take into account the bulky footwear and limited field of vision. Scientists at MIT and non-profit research lab Draper are developing a sensor-equipped space boot that uses vibrations to guide wearers around obstacles, and now they've added an augmented reality display to provide visual feedback as well.
We first caught wind of this new-age space boot last year, following a pilot study at MIT investigating how haptic feedback can be used in footwear to reveal the presence of ground obstacles. This could prove vital for explorers on Mars, for example, where a punctured space suit resulting from a fall could prove fatal. But it may also have applications here on Earth.
The research led to a prototype boot with an ultrasonic range-finder, a proximity sensor and a six-degree-of-freedom inertial measurement unit. When an obstacle is detected, tiny haptic motors deliver vibrations at the toe, heel and on the outside of the foot at varying intensities to indicate the proximity of an obstacle. Now the researchers have hooked it up to an augmented reality display that uses visual cues as to the whereabouts of nearby hazards, which they say is providing better results.
"When we tested the system, most participants found the visual-tactile and visual-only cues easier to use than the tactile-only or no cues presentation style," Gibson said.
Because vision is such an important part of navigating our everyday lives (ever stumbled around a room with the light off?), the team says this kind of research could help inform the design of navigation systems for the visually impaired. With further work, the technology could also be used by some first responders, such as firefighters making their way through smoke-filled rooms.