Vision is one of the key senses for humans. Those with limited or no sight can compensate, but it can still be difficult to finding your way through an unfamiliar setting when you can’t see. Could technology help solve this problem?

That’s one of the many projects underway at the Interactive Architecture Lab at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London, England. The multi-disciplinary group combines art, design, technology, and more to explore robotics, behavior, environment design, and even performance and choreography. One of their current projects is Sarotis, in which wearables are created to give the user information about the 3D space that surrounds them. The designers have used devices with integrated 3D cameras to gather data about the setting. This data is used to actuate robotic “clothing” that inflates in localized sections to create pressure on the wearer’s body. This pressure is used to convey information about obstacles in the environment, so that the wearer can navigate even while blindfolded.

One of the intriguing applications of the system is that it could also be used to provide feedback about virtual objects. The wearer could “sense” the presence of walls of a maze, even though they were in an unobstructed space. This has interesting implications for both sighted and visually impaired users, as it could help them navigate in virtual reality (VR) settings. People even could interact with people through a telepresence, where the wearer could sense the presence of objects and other people in a remote setting.

While the current project appears to lie somewhere on the boundary between art and science, it points the way toward an fascinating future where we may be able to augment our natural senses in a variety of creative and useful ways. Perhaps a system such as this could eventually let us “visit” Mars without ever leaving this planet.