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Helping firefighters save lives

New vibrotactile gloves can become a fireman’s eyes in a smoke-filled room.  

October 23, 2013

University of Minnesota researchers have taken a step toward giving firefighters a new means of finding their way through dark or smoky buildings.

Lucy Dunne, an associate professor in apparel design, and graduate student Tony Carton designed gloves that use ultrasonic sensors to detect walls and other objects.

When the sensors detect an object, a microcontroller translates the sensor signal into vibrations—the closer the object, the stronger the vibes. In lab tests, blindfolded volunteers found the sensors “intuitive” and were able to use them to reliably detect the presence and position of obstacles.

The two researchers also met with Minneapolis firefighters and showed them sensor-equipped gloves.

“In design, there is a lot of value in making a prototype,” says Carton. “Doing so moves the idea from our minds into the physical world, giving us the ability to evaluate and iterate.”

Enhancing senses through smart clothing

The research is more broadly concerned with exploring the potential for enhancing senses through wearable devices.

“First responders are our target user group,” Dunne says. “The exciting thing is that smart clothing can give a first responder the ability to perceive things that they can’t perceive now. For example, by making them aware of changes in their vital signs or giving them a ‘sixth sense’ about changes in the environment.”

The technology used in the gloves is simple, she says. The challenge is implementation. A way must be found to display the signal intuitively and tell users what’s going on without asking them to carry or wear more equipment.

“We plan to improve the prototype in terms of the sensitivity and responsiveness,” Dunne says. “With this technology, we can’t tell a human body from other obstacles, which is something the Minneapolis firefighters were very interested in being able to do.”

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