15 Sensor Techs Turn Users into Superheroes

Tech enhancements to the 5 basic sensors give people superhero powers.
  • Electronic Eyes

    It’s estimated that about 130 million people worldwide wear contact lenses, mainly to correct their vision. Now, with electronic systems getting ever smaller and with the possibility of having electrical power on lens, it becomes possible to integrate a variety of transducers (i.e. physical, biochemical, etc.) into a lens. Such capabilities would be very useful for diagnosing and treating ocular diseases. The challenge is to integrate a complete autonomous system and make it as flexible as a soft lens, without compromising its oxygen-permeable nature and the integrity of the electronic components. Researchers at imec, Ghent University and SEED have done just that with the development of a prototype of a Hydrogel-based Soft Lenses with integrated Electronics that incorporates a self-standing flexible RF antenna, thin microchip, LED light and stretchable interconnections into the contact lens.

  • Seeing in the Dark

    The invention of the complementary metal oxide semiconductor (CMOS) image sensor has dominated the digital imaging industries by enabling cell phone cameras, high-definition video, and the like. The CMOS sensor chip turns light into electrical signals that can be processed to form digital images. A team lead by Eric Fossum at Dartmouth College have created what they call Quanta Image Sensor (QIS) technology. Instead of pixels, QIS chips have what Fossum and his colleagues call "jots." Each jot can detect a single particle of light, called a photon.

    QIS technology should enable a new new approach to creating digital images. To build an image from the chip, the individual jot samples are added together and, using image processing software, a single image is produced. Applications for this technology should help astronomers interested in collecting light from distant objects, or military forced to work in low-light environments.

  • Laser-Beam Eyes

    Scottish scientists have created an ultrathin, flexible film contacted lens that can emit laser light. While such laser beam eyes have some interesting applications, cutting through objects like Superman is not one of them. The lasers just aren’t’ powerful enough to cause damage, but they could be used as a wearable security tag or a type of barcode reader. Researchers at the Organic Semiconductor Center, located at the University of St. Andrews, have attached one of these flexible lasers to a contact lens applied to an eyeball that had been removed from a cow.

  • Humans with X-Ray Vision?

    The MIT computer science and AI laboratory has created a system that can see human bodies through walls. The technology recreates a person’s representation when they walk, sit, or simply stand still in another room The technology and mechanism was developed by scientists at MIT’s artificial intelligence lab uses radio frequency (RF) waves to sense where you are and then recreates your body as a simple stick figure.

  • Martian Manhunter (well NASA Robot) Has Super Sensors

    According to NASA, robots have soon replicate much of the human sensory experience on Mars. Technology has provided cameras for sight, robotic hands, arms and feet in addition to senses of touch, and chemical and mineral sensors to taste, smell and hear on the Red Planet. Let’s focus on the hearing devices.

    When the Perseverance rover arrives at Mars, it will have two microphones. It will make it possible for the robots to not only touch and taste, but finally hear, the sounds of Mars.

    NASA spacecraft that traveled to Mars in the past have carried microphones twice. Unfortunately, one of those missions, the Mars Polar Lander, failed. The Phoenix Lander had a microphone on the spacecraft’s descent camera, but that instrument was never turned on.

  • Babel Fish Make Humans Multilingual

    In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, a Babel Fish insert into one’s ear allows that person to instantaneously translate between any language. That fictional fish is becoming a reality. A few years ago, Google launched a set of Bluetooth earbuds called the Pixel Buds with one standout feature: instant translation between 40 different languages using a Pixel smartphone. Microsoft’s Team (formerly Skype) Translator can do real-time translation between eight languages over a voice or video call.

  • Brain Implant May Give Hearing Superpowers

    Want superpowers? Try embedding a tiny computer chip surgically in your brain. Researchers already use brain chips to restore sight for some blind people and hearing for the deaf.

    These implants, known as neuroprosthetics, will do more in the future in areas like super-sensitive eye or ear implants. By using electronic signals to stimulate parts of the brain, these chips can now deliver visual and auditory signals and restore connections damaged by trauma. With advances in AI an understand of interfacing with the brain, researchers hop to deliver more data to the mind.

  • Super Tasters

    Even without technology, there are human that have the ability to detect by taste things that would be undetectable by average human. A supertaster is a person whose sense of taste is significantly more sensitive than average. Studies have shown that super tasters have a heightened sense of the taste of bitterness. The cause of this heightened response is partially due to an increased number of fungiform papillae. Papillae are the small, nipple-like structures on the upper surface of the tongue that give it its characteristic rough texture. The four types of papillae on the human tongue have different structures and are accordingly classified as circumvallate (or vallate), fungiform, filiform, and foliate.

  • Artificial Tongue Detects Fake Whiskies

    A team based in Scotland have created a device that can be used to differentiate a host of single malt whiskies – a move they say might help in the fight against counterfeit products. The technology can also be used to identify poisons as well as to monitor rivers. The whisky tasting device using a bimetallic nano-plasmonic tongue. Sub-microscopic slices of two metals, arranged in a checkerboard pattern, act as the ‘taste buds’ in the team’s artificial tongue. The researchers poured samples of whisky over the taste buds – which are about 500 times smaller than their human equivalents – and measured how they absorb light while submerged.

  • NASA Super Tongue

    NASA Ames has expanded the nano chemical sensor technology from the E-nose to E-tongue. E-Tongue is comprised of silicon-based interdigitated electrode (IDE) array with nanostructured materials that can detect biomolecules and chemical compounds in a liquid sample. The technology adopts a novel approach where analytes are not detected using highly-specific target receptor, but rather it utilizes an array of low-specificity sensors that yield electrical signals that act as signatures specific to the molecules present. The technology provides a sensing platform for liquid samples to detect the presence of target components. This invention not only takes relatively little time for detection, is quantitatively specific for identifying the presence of one or more target components of a liquid, but also uses a minimum number of chemical or physical tests that can be performed simultaneously or sequentially.

    Artificial tongues complement article noses, i.e., the tongues handle liquids (and solids that have been liquefied, which is what happens when humans eat), whereas the noses deal with gases.

  • Electronic Nose Needs AI

    Recent studies have suggested that neuromorphic artificial intelligence (AI) learns to recognize smells more efficiently and reliably than other algorithms. According to Nature Machine Intelligence, the key is neuromorphic structures that resemble the neural circuitry in mammalian brains more than other AI designs. The new AI is an artificial neural network that contains many computing elements that mimic nerve cells to process scent information. The AI d-nose smells by taking in electrical voltage readouts from chemical sensors in a wind tunnel that were exposed to plumes of different scents, such as methane or ammonia. When the AI whiffs a new smell, that triggers a cascade of electrical activity among its nerve cells, or neurons, which the system remembers and can recognize in the future.

  • Chips Gain Human Scent Receptors

    Several researchers and companies are integrating human scent receptors (or those of any mammal) onto a computer chip for electronic readout. Yesse Technologies is working with nanotechnology researchers at imec to develop such chips. There seems to be huge markets for fragrance and perfume sectors and in medical diagnostics. The company combines fluorescent markers and a genetic platform with imec’s technology that enables an optical read-out of receptor activation. 

  • Can Computer’s Smell without a Nose?

    Neuromorphic engineering, also known as neuromorphic computing, describes the use of very-large-scale integration (VLSI) analog circuit chips to mimic neuro-biological architectures present in the human nervous system. Algorithms are being built by researchers by Intel and Cornell University for AI to learn neural representations of 10 different odors.

    The chemical-sensing community for chemosensory processing systems, otherwise called electronic nose systems. Robots equipped with neuromorphic chips can perform environmental monitoring and hazardous materials detection, or quality control chores in factories. Further, they could be used for medical diagnoses where some diseases emit particular odors and in airport security lines to better identifying hazardous substances.

  • Haptic Touch Permits Distance Healing

    Imagine that you are surgeon running a virtual reality-based simulation of an operation before the actual event. The simulation creates a realistic environment where the surgeon can see and test out the operation. However, he or she has no way to gauge the feeling of the forces of the scalpel in contact with human tissue. This is where haptic feedback would help, i.e., the capability to mimic the sense of touch and force in a computer simulation.

    After practicing, the surgeon might move on to the actual physical surgery or one conducted remotely. It is a form of telepresence. A robot surgical system is located at the remote facility, generally consisting of one or more arms (controlled by the surgeon), a master controller (console), and a sensory system giving feedback to the user.

  • Touching Radiation

    Many of the Department of Energy (DoE) superfund sites had to handle highly radioactive waste. It was not uncommon for workers holds a plutonium "button" inside a chamber. This amazing feat was made possible by protective gloves.

    In a nuclear laboratory, a glove box is a windowed, sealed container equipped with two flexible gloves that allow the user to manipulate nuclear materials from the outside in a safe environment.

  • Power Glove for Super Strength

    Thanks to wearable technology, tool operators can have superhuman strength. Researchers at the NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC) in collaboration with General Motors (GM) have designed and developed Robo-Glove, a wearable human grasp assist device, to help reduce the grasping force needed by an individual to operate tools for an extended time or when performing tasks having repetitive motion. Robo-Glove has the potential to help workers, such as construction workers, hazardous material workers, or assembly line operators, whose job requires continuous grasping and ungrasping motion. The Robo-Glove also enables human-safe robotics as pressure sensors in the glove give a sense of touch or haptic feedback. Further, the glove is completely self-contained to include embedded actuators, pressure sensors, and synthetic tendons.


John Blyler is a Design News senior editor, covering the electronics and advanced manufacturing spaces. With a BS in Engineering Physics and an MS in Electrical Engineering, he has years of hardware-software-network systems experience as an editor and engineer within the advanced manufacturing, IoT and semiconductor industries. John has co-authored books related to system engineering and electronics for IEEE, Wiley, and Elsevier.

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