Graduate students at the University of Illinois in Chicago's Electronic Visualization Laboratory has used comic book superpowers as inspiration for their research projects. Namely, the extrasensory abilities of Spider-Man and Daredevil. In comics, Spider-Man has an acute sixth sense--Spider-Sense--that alerts him of danger before it happens in the form of a tingling sensation. Daredevil, who is blind, uses sonar to map out his environment in order to navigate the world (like bats). Researcher Victor Mateevitsi and his team believe those abilities could be applicable in the real world for people with sensory dysfunctions, and built a suit to test that theory.
Their suit, the SpiderSense experiment, is actually a collection of sensor modules connected to one large controller box, all strapped to various points of the wearer's body. Each of the sensor modules contains a ultrasonic sensor for measuring distance (with a 200 inch range) and a servo motor connected to a pressure arm. The idea is that the module can be programmed to apply slight pressure to the body depending on how close it is to foreign objects, such as walls or other people. The "suit" is composed of up to thirteen of the sensor modules, strategically affixed on the chest, arms, and legs of the subject and programmed to work together to recognize objects in tandem. It's not exactly 360 degree coverage, but worked suitably for the experiments.
Four experiments were conducted to test the extrasensory effects (and effectiveness) of SpiderSense. The first three involved asking subjects to navigate a hallway, recognize pedestrians outdoors, and also traverse a cramped library. Researchers noted that navigation through tactile feedback worked well outdoors where the number of obstacles was low, but frustrated subjects indoors with overwhelming tactile feedback. But it was the fourth test that was really fun--simulating Daredevil's defenses against attackers:
"In this last experiment the subjects were asked to stand still in an open space, while the experimenters approached him from random directions. The subject was asked to throw a cardboard shuriken to the direction of the approaching experimenter. In all the trials the subject successfully recognized when somebody was approaching andfrom which direction, and was able to hit the experimenter with the shuriken. Furthermore, when somebody was inside the sensing distance and was walking around the subject, the subject could localize and describe the direction of the movement."
The SpiderSense system is still very rudimentary and purely electronic, but Mateevitsi believes that biologic sensory systems could be in our future with advancements in bioengineering and genetics. At that point, we'll be in real comic book territory--just make sure those laboratories are free of spiders and lizards.