Sensing out a new future

12/05/2020 - 12:05

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It may sound like something from a sci-fi movie, but technology is rapidly moving into the space we consider a vital part of what makes us human – our senses.

US researchers have developed a device that operates much as a dog’s nose does, sensing temperature, pressure and chemical change. Photo: Stockphoto

It may sound like something from a sci-fi movie, but technology is rapidly moving into the space we consider a vital part of what makes us human – our senses.

What if we could supercharge our human sensory perceptions – sight, sound, touch, smell and taste – through technology? Perhaps we could give those abilities to inanimate objects.

Or to get even more abstract, we could smell colour and taste shapes. Sounds impossible, right? Turns out it’s not far from reality.

Sensing is the process of determining a state of something (sick, sad, healthy, fresh, dirty, cold) by measuring variables such as sound, light, electric signals, temperature, mass, enzymes, air pressure, and much more.

Traditionally this might be done through a smoke alarm or a blood test, for example. At an organic level, this process occurs through our nose, ears, eyes, and nerves.

Using sensing technology, we can detect physical, chemical or biological property quantities, which can tell us if a person is ill or if food is off.

It can even help a blind person to ‘see’ through the use of their other senses.

Shiv Akarsh and Vladmir Puzyrev are founders of Backprop, a Perth company that uses electromagnetic sensing to perform non-invasive glucose monitoring.

The team coined the term ‘sensables’ to describe their own device, which could be the beginning of a new tech category that is yet to find consistent terminology in mainstream media.

Smelling: E-noses

As humans, we can sniff milk or meat and know when it is out of date. But how often have you given your spoiled pet some leftovers, only for them to turn their nose up at it and demand fresh food instead? How do they know?

Popular US science television show NOVA found that canines possess up to 300 million olfactory receptors, compared to about 6 million in humans. Scientists say dogs can detect some odours in parts per trillion.

Continuing the canine connection, Jacob Rosenstein from Brown University in the US is behind an invention called TruffleBot.

The device uses chemical, pressure and temperature senses (much like a dog’s nose) to ‘sniff’ vapours in the air.

The electronic nose can successfully detect nine different odours with accuracy between 95 and 98 per cent. This includes scents like lime, acetone and beer.

How does it work, exactly? Beer odours actually cause a slight decrease in air pressure and a slight increase in temperature due to the alcohol vapour.

E-noses may be used for various applications, such as notifying us on our phone when food has expired, when you should change your clothes (body odour), or the detection of gas leaks and industrial environmental pollution.

Listening: Noisy Guts

Noisy Guts is a celebrated medtech company from Perth, headed up by CEO Josephine Muir.

The brainchild of Nobel Laureate Barry Marshall, the Noisy Guts team is developing an acoustic belt and using machine learning to diagnose and monitor gut health for conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome. In simple terms, it listens to your gut noises.

The company has been a winner of both the National iAwards and WA Innovator of the Year in recent years.

Dr Muir claims the wearable medical devices market is expected to exceed more than $US14 billion by 2024.

The growth is driven by the rising use of smartphones and medtech-linked apps, as well as advances in medical technology, including sensors and software.

“This trend data has been influential in informing Noisy Guts’ commercialisation strategy since our inception,” Dr Muir said.

Noisy Guts demonstrates that listening is just another sense that can be augmented to produce powerful information.

Touch: Sensory VEST

Synesthesia is a condition where people’s senses blend together. They might view numbers as colours, or get a bitter taste in their mouth when they see a palm tree, for example.

Scientists refer to it as cross-associations between senses in the brain, but the output is that people with synesthesia experience the world in extraordinary ways.

Fascinated by this phenomenon, Stanford University neuroscientist David Eagleman developed his now-patented NeoSensory VEST (Versatile Extra-Sensory Transducer), a wearable device that allows the brain to receive data in new ways.

Dr Eagleman believes humans can develop new senses by using technology and feeding signals to our brain.

“All it [the brain] ever gets are these electrical signals, and it has to put together its version of the world from that,” he said.

The VEST consists of 32 vibrating monitors that translate all types of data into touch. This might be information about your flight status at the airport, or to notify you of a crash on the stock market.

In the meantime, NeoSensory has publicly released a miniature version of the technology in 2020, called Buzz. It’s a more robust looking Fitbit-style wristband that sends different patterns of vibrations to translate sounds.

People with hearing impairments who tested Buzz said they could hear/feel things like a river flowing, the doorbell ringing, a baby crying and even their own name being called – all through touch.

It’s not a surprise that it brought Phillip Smith (the first person to try it) to tears. It takes just a few weeks of training to learn this new vibrational language.

Dr Eagleman is developing the VEST so that the wider community can create thousands of new data streams to feed into it, much like Apple first did with the App Store for iPhones.

His view is that interpreting these patterns will not be an effortful or cognitive translation, it’s just an unconscious thing a brain will learn to do. It may not be long before we develop our sixth and seventh senses, such as possessing 360-degree vision or feeling our own blood pressure.

Like a true inventor, Dr Eagleman refers to our ‘sensory gifts’ in his TED talk. “There’s really no end to the possibilities of human expansion … we’re going to increasingly be able to choose our own peripheral devices ... and define our own trajectory,” he said.

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