Most people agree that humans have five senses, and they’re pretty straightforward – we see what’s in the vicinity of our eyes, we hear what sound vibrations reach our ears, taste what we put in our mouths, etc. Some people believe in a sixth sense, whether that’s seeing dead people or having some other sort of extrasensory knowledge that others don’t possess. Regardless of whether you believe at all in the supernatural, soon you may able to sense what’s beyond your fingertips – through pure, hard science.
RepRap Ltd, an organization dedicated to research and development using RepRap 3D printers, is in the process of developing the “Extra Senses” project, a wearable device that allows the wearer to feel his or her surroundings out to a range of approximately three meters. Essentially, the device extends the wearer’s sense of touch out beyond normal levels, the organization states.
Extra Senses works in the form of a pair of armbands with rangefinders installed in them. The rangefinders point outward around the wearer’s body and sense objects in the vicinity. As the distance between the wearer and an object, such as a wall, gets smaller, a set of vibrators inside the armbands begin vibrating with increasing frequency. It’s easy to see how this could dramatically improve the lives of people with visual impairment, allowing them to feel obstacles well before they actually reach them. You can see how it works below, as a member of the RepRap Ltd. team tries the device out with her eyes closed:
The idea for Extra Senses came from feelSpace, a belt that transmits navigational information to its wearer through a series of pulses. Extra Senses is still only in the first prototype stage, but as you can see from the video above, it already works quite well. It was made pretty inexpensively, too, by hacking some ultrasonic rangefinders and mobile phone vibrators.
“[We] programmed an Arduino Uno to loop through a bunch of the rangefinders in turn getting a distance in metres from each and to use the results to set the mark/space ratio of the signals sent to the corresponding vibrators,” states the RepRap Ltd. team. “The Uno outputs can drive the vibrators directly with no extra electronics needed, as they are very low-current. The whole thing is powered by one of those recharge-your-phone USB battery packs. These are compact, and have enough amp-hours of charge to run the device for over sixteen hours a day (that is to say, all the time you are awake, with overnight recharging). For the Arduino, they also conveniently provide power as a USB socket.”
To create the armbands, the team 3D printed a case for the sensors, complete with holes for the vibrators, directly onto the fabric that would make up the armband itself. 3D printing onto fabric is also a method devised by the RepRap Ltd. team, and it’s surprisingly easy – just put double-sided tape on the fabric, secure it to the print bed, and print as you normally would.
Ultimately, the team wants the Extra Senses device to become much more advanced, with multiple vibrators linked to the electronic sensors via Bluetooth in the wearer’s phone, allowing them to be able to sense everything up to five meters in a 360° radius. Beyond that, they hope to adapt the device to connect it to a car’s surround sensors so that drivers can sense the traffic up to 40 meters around them – and from there, they want to connect it to aircraft radar so pilots can sense several kilometers around them. You can see the 3D-printed-upon fabric in the video below – it’s not a perfect process yet, but for a first prototype, the Extra Senses device is seriously impressive. Discuss in the Extra Senses forum at 3DPB.com.