The world of Iron Man may be closer to being a reality than we originally thought. A group of design students at the Royal College of Art in London recently created two different "Iron Man masks" that give their wearers sensory superpowers. One mask is worn over the ears, mouth and nose, giving users the ability to hear things that were never before possible by using a multi-directional microphone. The other mask is worn over the eyes and enables users to see different types of movement patterns around them. You can think of this super-sensory augmentation as the next wave of wearable tech: first, the smart watches, then the Glasses, then the Masks.
And that’s not all – researchers are starting to wade deeper and deeper into the field of super-sensory augmentation, building on the growing interest around the field of Bionics. For example, researchers at Princeton recently came up with a funky-looking 3D-printed bionic ear, making it possible to pick up things never before possible by a human - like radio waves. At the same time,researchers at the University of Illinois recently showed off a digital camera that works like an insect's eye. The camera uses multiple imaging units that enable users to see the world the way bugs do, including a whole new sensitivity to motion. Just imagine if that camera was ever hooked up to a mask or a set of Google Glasses. And, as if that couldn't be topped, a group of U. Penn engineering students came up with the TitanArm exoskeleton arm that turns you into some kind of Transformer bot with super-strength abilities. For less than $2,000, you can get a cheap, functional robo-arm that can transform even a 120-pound weakling into a robotic super-loader -- or a hero into a super-hero.
Suddenly, the superhero of our comic books is close to being a reality. Iron Man masks? Spiderman bug eye cameras? Who knows, maybe we’ll actually use Kickstarter to fund a real-life action hero one day?
What’s driving this trend toward super-sensory augmentation, of course, is a new surge of support around wearable tech. While wearable tech - in the sense of devices powered by computer chips that are worn externally on our bodies - has been around awhile, what's changed is that we're now looking for ways to unite man and machine in ways that blow past previous biases that we once had about wearable tech. It's no longer the case that super-sensory augmentation is only for people who have lost their sight, or their hearing or their physical strength -- it's now for the tech early adopters as well.
Which is not to say that there aren't caveats. Of late, there's been quite a bit of blowback about wearable tech. Maybe it's a case of too many middle-aged white guys taking showers with them, but even the Google Glasses have lost their initial veneer of cool. On SNL this weekend, the show had a good time mocking the erratic actions - the blinks and winks and voice commands - that confirm our worst fears about wearable tech. It's impossible to watch the SNL parody video on Google Glass with Fred Armisen herking and jerking around and repeating the word “peacock” over and over again, and not realize that super-sensory augmentation comes with a list of real-world trade-offs.
With super-sensory augmentation, we are essentially changing who we are as humans. We are also getting increasingly acclimated to the fact that man and machine can co-exist. Medical and prosthetic devices, once created solely for those who needed them, are now evolving to become the devices of choice for those with extra cash to spend and the desire to Keep Up With the Joneses next door. And these tech early adopter are willing to experiment with these devices even when they don't look "human." That 3D bionic ear? It's "spooky." Other super-sensory augmentation may look "spooky" as well. We may be leaving the Uncanny Valley, in which robots that resemble humans too closely inspire revulsion, and on our way to a new Uncanny Peak, in which humans that don't resemble humans inspire adoration.
Image: Iron Man Statue via Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia Commons