Eyes in the Back of Your Head - The Suit to Perceive the Imperceptible (Part 1)

Mitsuhiro Matsumoto

Ultrasonic Sensing Technology Equips Ordinary People with Extraordinary Powers of Perception
Interviewer & Japanese Writer: Yamamoto Takaya ; Translation & Editing: Matthew Cherry

A Crash Course into the Superhuman Suit

Mitsuhiro Matsumoto was selected as a challenger for the 2015 INNO-vation Program’s Disruptive Challenge, with a goal of extending the natural boundaries of human perception with the Superhuman Suit. The suit consists of a vest and cap attached with small-scale ultrasonic sensors that alert the user of objects from behind and above using vibrations to indicate distance.

The Superhuman Suit, a blue suit with black circles scattered across the back.

The Superhuman Suit’s Vest

The sensors calculate distance by sending out ultrasonic waves and measuring how long it takes for the waves to bounce back, similar to radar. Inside each sensor is a small oscillator, much like the ones found in smartphones, that send a vibration to the user’s head or back whenever something is detected.

A white medical style cap with small black circles across the surface, a plastic controlling devices lies to the right of the cap.

The Superhuman Suit’s Cap

Currently, the sensors’ reception allows it to vibrate at detected distances of approximately 5 to 6 meters. Although it’s possible to change the degree of vibration depending on the relative distance, the current suit is set according to a certain range by the user. For example, setting the suit to 5 meters will cause the sensors to vibrate whenever something specifically enters the 5-meter range.

So how exactly did Matsumoto come up with the Superhuman Suit?

“Though I’m currently working at Kanagawa University, I previously worked as a teacher at a national institute of technology in Kurume, Fukuoka. In front of one of the offices there were a number of flyers promoting programs that supported various kinds of research. I thought one had an interesting design so I took it home with me. It just so happened to be that flyer was for the INNO-vation Program, so that’s where everything started. Once I looked into it, I realized that this program was different from others in that it supported creative and unique ideas through creating something from nothing, so I thought I would go ahead and apply.”

What may come as a surprise is that up until Matsumoto applied for the INNO-vation Program, he hadn’t even had the idea for the Superhuman Suit yet. Indeed, he concocted the Superhuman Suit in order to take on the challenge of the program.

“In order to find something to propose, I had to first think about what the world needed. From there, I thought there wasn’t really an existing way to protect your body if something or someone were to suddenly approach you. If you knew in advance about something falling from above, or about someone trying to attack you, that would give you time to protect yourself.”

It goes without saying that Matsumoto was no novice to sensor technology; in fact, he had dabbled with laser rangefinder technology before. This technology has seen greater mainstream use in recent years through autonomous vehicle support systems and even in routing systems found in robotic vacuum cleaners.

“Knowing that there was a way to measure distance, I had the idea that it could be used to help alert people to steer clear of dangerous situations, and that’s when I thought to use ultrasonic sensors.”

The INNO-vation Program, which advocates support for extraordinarily ambitious “hen” (“変”, Japanese for strange) people, ideas and technologies, sees thousands of applications for its Disruptive Challenge Division every year. With there being clear prestige in being inducted into the Disruptive Challenge, we asked why Matsumoto believes he was chosen to be part of that select few in 2015.

“I can’t really say for myself, maybe there was a need for it? Or perhaps I was able to explain it from a logical point of view, that if something like this were to be invented it could provide a sense of safety by helping people avoid danger. It could also be that I asserted it wasn’t just a fanciful idea that I had, but rather something I could implement. That, and possibly that it was something that did not yet exist in the world.”

While sensors have wide-spread use in AI-powered robots and other types of machines, there are few instances of sensors being used to directly expand the capabilities of the human body.

“I did find a few examples of research trying to attach sensors to humans. One example had a sensor-attached robot placed behind a person, and a separate computer would process the information picked up by the sensors which would then be transmitted back to the person via vibrations. However, there weren’t really any examples that let the user wear the sensors like clothes and move around with them while being worn. I think I was the first to do that.”

Be sure to stay tuned for part two in our three-part interview with Matsumoto exploring the journey Matsumoto took in creating the Superhuman Suit.

Yukihiro Matsumoto

Mitsuhiro Matsumoto

Continued in Part Two

Mitsuhiro Matsumoto's

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