A new glove-like device lets divers explore the murky depths using echolocation, just like a dolphin. The IrukaTact finds objects using a tiny ultrasonic rangefinder, and then uses water pressure on the user’s fingers to give haptic feedback. Thus, the diver’s sense of touch is extended, even when visibility is so bad that they are swimming blind.
The obvious use-case is in underwater rescue, where a diver could feel their way through water that is too clouded to be penetrated by light. The range of the sensor runs from five inches to 33 feet.
The prototype—made by Aisen Caro Chacin and Takeshi Oozu at the EMP Tsukuba University—uses a small ultrasonic device in the palm of the hand. When it detects an object, it activates pumps that pressurize the water in the fingertips of the gloves. This variable pressure is tuned to communicate the size and distance of the object, essentially extending the user’s sense of touch way beyond the length of their arms. In future, it will be possible for the user to fine-tune this range to something more manageable. "This is a very broad range," Chacin told Co.Exist, "and we are still working on a new interface design in order to give users the liberty to choose their own range within the sensor's capacity."
The plan was not to build an aid for rescue workers, but to explore new haptic feedback methods. "Our main goal was to create new haptic sensations beyond vibration," said Chacin. "People that have tried the haptic actuation seem to like this kind of sensation."
Chacin thinks that the glove would be a good fit for virtual reality, too. "If the sensor is swapped from an ultrasonic range-finder to a gyroscope, and accelerometers, it could be paired with simulated digital environments, and create a more realistic sensation." I asked Chacin if the glove could be modified to work in air, and she said that it could. However, the extra power required to produce the same sensations with air would be greater, leading to a much bulkier device.
While Chacin and her team work on improvements to the design—reducing the delay in the sonar sensor, for example, you or I can download the plans for the kit from her site. The IrukaTact can be 3-D printed, and the electronics are readily available. The brain is a cheap Arduino micro-controller, for instance. The idea behind this is that folks can make their own glove and keep them in their emergency kits.
"Everyone who lives in areas that are prone to flooding, such as tsunami, hurricane, and tropical storm areas is encouraged to download the DIY and User Manual, where all instructions for assembly and parts list are detailed," says Chacin. Just make sure you know where to find it in case of a flash flood.