When I was growing up, the super power I envied most in the Marvel Comics hero, Spiderman, was his “sixth sense” that would tingle when someone was nearby. As I grew older, I learned that this “situational awareness” of your surroundings is an essential skill, whether you’re navigating a sailboat or driving a car on a crowded highway. This power also served as the inspiration for a new wearable technology that could help everyone from the blind to emergency first responders including firefighters.

Victor Mateevitsi is a PhD candidate at the University of Illinois Chicago, and as a project for one of his courses, he created a jacket that gives the wearer “SpiderSense.” The garment is studded with a dozen individual sensors that use ultrasound to detect people and objects up to 60 feet away. The sensor modules also include a haptic feature that vibrates when an obstacle is detected. As the object gets closer, the intensity of the vibration increases. As a result, the wearer can navigate without sight. This can benefit those with impaired vision, but it can also serve those who work in settings where visibility is reduced due to smoke or lack of light.

Mateevitsi has created a company, SpiderSense, to commercialize his invention. He plans to launch an experimental program this coming summer to give a limited number of early adopters access to the jacket or the individual sensors. As the sensors get smaller with further development, this technology could have broad implications, and has the potential to be more convenient and effective than some alternative head-mounted approaches.