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These crazy sonar gloves let the wearer feel distant objects, even in murky water

Inspired by the way dolphins navigate the ocean (aka echolocation), a group of Ph.D. candidates from Japan’s Tsukuba University recently developed an innovative sonar glove that allows the wearer to feel what’s underwater without actually grabbing something. Dubbed the IrukaTact, the makers of the glove hope the technology allows for the accurate location of victims during emergency situations involving flooding. Moreover, the developers also provide an online blueprint for anyone looking to 3D-print their own sonar glove — obviously, the electronics would still have to be provided.

Designed and tested by Aisen Carolina Chacin and Takeshi Ozu, the IrukaTact glove (iruka means “dolphin” in Japanese) uses a variety of pulsating water jets to create haptic feedback to any wearer. After the glove’s sonar detects objects under water, it sends a signal back to the glove which then begins applying pressure to necessary fingers via these water jets. If the glove gets closer to an object, the pressure intensifies, alerting the wearer of its proximity.

“Our overall goal was to expand haptics,” Chacin points out. “How can you feel different textures or sense depth without actually touching the object? Vibration alone doesn’t cut it for me, or most people, for that matter.”

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Under the hood, Chacin and Ozu outfitted their sonar glove with a MaxBotix MB7066 sonar sensor, three miniature motors, and an Arduino Pro Mini microcontroller board. To accurately send detection signals while analyzing the topography of a flooded area, the duo programmed the Arduino Pro Mini to send signals to three silicone thimbles which are worn over a wearer’s index, middle, and ring fingers. Each thimble’s motor (placed at the top) also pumps surrounding water onto the wearer’s fingertips, creating the sensation of force feedback.

Intentionally left free from the glove, a user’s thumb and pinky fingers allow the glove to remain less cumbersome and help provide increased dexterity and movement. Chacin and Ozu also include a small silicone ring of which they attach to the glove’s sensors located at the wrist. This ring is designed to be worn around the middle finger, and allows the glove’s sensors to continuously understand which direction the wearer’s palm is facing regardless of movement.

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Currently, the IrukaTact glove only has the ability to detect objects accurately up to two feet underwater. As the tech improves and Chacin and Ozu increase its capabilities, the duo hopes to greatly expand its working range. Furthermore, they also believe Facebook’s Oculus Rift could one day pair with the tech, offering virtual reality haptic feedback by utilizing a set of gyroscopes and accelerometers.

Though the gloves look a little funky in action, there’s no denying how useful this tech could be during a flooding crisis. No official launch date was given by either Chacin or Ozu, however, anyone with a 3D printer and some electrical know-how could feasibly get their own sonar glove up and running in a matter of hours.