There’s wearable tech, and then there’s the device a team of University of Illinois at Chicago PHD students have created that’s capable of a lot more than surfing the web and checking your health stats.

During a UIC human augmentics class Victor Mateevitsi, Brad Haggadone and Brian Kunzer were asked to do one thing: Make something that can see the invisible. What developed was SpiderSense, a wearable suit with 15 modules placed all around a person’s body that applies pressure when someone is approaching an object.

Using echolocation, like how bats use to navigate in the dark, the user can feel when they are nearing another person, tree, door, or any other kind of obstacle within 200 inches. Mateevitsi and his team successfully conducted some initial experiments to test SpiderSense, which included having someone walk down a hall blindfolded without running into a wall, and walking outside around campus and spotting pedestrians.

But its most effective experiment, Mateevitsi told Chicago Inno, was having the user stand and try to hit moving people with tiny styrofoam ninja stars. Blindfolded, the user had to localize the subject and hit the person with the star. Mateevitsi said it worked well because the user was stationary in an open environment and could feel the sensors as people approached.

“As people get close, you’re not getting overwhelmed,” he said. “If you feel something on your right shoulder it means someone’s on my right side. If that feeling shifts from the right shoulder to your chest, you know that he’s walking around you from right to left.”

The user knows if the person is directly in front of him if he feels equal pressure from both his right and left shoulder sensors.

The most obvious practical usage for SpiderSense is for the blind, who would be able to use the device at a longer range than a traditional cane.

“You can imagine that [a blind person] is walking down the street and they can actually feel some of the obstacles that maybe they haven’t yet identified with their cane,” Mateevitsi said. “They can actually feel ahead what’s going on in front of them, or even behind them. If somebody’s following them, they would know it. They would feel something on their back.”

Additionally, SpiderSense could be used by firefighters or other officials who work in low-visibility environments. If a room suddenly becomes filled with smoke for a firefighter, SpiderSense could direct the person to the exit or help him or her navigate through the home. Mateevitsi even sees the technology being used on automobiles and bicyclists. Instead of your car alerting you with a beep when you’re changing lanes and someone is in your blind spot, you could feel a vibration on your skin.

SpiderSense is still in the prototype stage as Mateevitsi finishes his PHD thesis. The possibilities seem almost endless for the UIC-born technology, and one day it could become such a routine part of our lives that you don’t even know it’s there, Mateevitsi said.

“Does it become at some point like a 6th sense? Can we actually use it so that we reach a point where we don’t think about it anymore, and we just feel it?” he said. “In the same way that you go in a room and you say ‘oh my god it’s cold,’ and you feel the cold, is there a way that we can do that with technology? If you walk in and something is happening around you and you don’t feel the vibration and whatever feedback mechanism your using, but you directly know what’s going on.”

Check out SpiderSense in action with a video demo from the Discovery Channel.

Photos by Electronic Visualization Laboratory / Lance Long