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You don’t have to be Superman to deflect bullets off your chest. Scientists have developed a way of bulking up an ordinary T-shirt to create wearable armor. By splicing the carbon in the cotton with boron, the third hardest material on the planet, researchers at the University of South Carolina markedly increased the fabric’s toughness. The result is a lightweight shirt reinforced with boron carbide—the same material used to shield military tanks.
Sure, it isn’t the Batsuit, but Harvardengineers are working on a “novel wearable system” that could prolong the physical endurance of soldiers in the field. As the beneficiaries of a Wayne Industries-sized $2.6 million grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the university’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering has been charged with developing a smart suit that improves the body’s resistance to injuries while delaying the onset of fatigue. Lightweight, efficient, and nonrestrictive, the proposed suit will comprise soft, wearable assistive devices that integrate several Wyss Institute technologies, including a stretchable sensor that monitors the body’s biomechanics without the need for rigid, motion-restricting components.
It doesn’t shoot web fluid from its wrists, but Victor Mateevitsi’s high-tech bodysuit could be the closest thing you’ll get to experiencing real-life “Spidey sense.” Inspired by Spider-Man—and the tingly sensation the comic superhero feels when danger is close—”SpiderSense” could allow the visually impaired to sense and avoid obstacles in their vicinity. Doctor Octopus himself would approve of its construction. The suit features small robotic arms encased in microphone-equipped modules that send and receive ultrasonic reflections from adjacent objects. When the ultrasound detects someone (or something) moving closer, the arms respond by placing pressure on the part of the body closest to the “threat.”
For paraplegics looking to gain mobility, NASA’s X1 robotic exoskeleton could be a real-life superhero suit. Designed to help astronauts maintain muscle health in space, the 57-pound device can either assist or inhibit movement in the joints of the leg. But the X1, which space agency compares to the powered armor favored by Iron Man, has potential applications on Earth, as well, including rehabilitation, gait modification, and offloading large amounts of weight from the wearer.
A Canadian camouflage-design company claims to be developing a real-life invisibility cloak that causes its wearer to vanish in plain sight, not unlike the Invisible Woman. The British Columbia-based Hyperstealth Biotechnology says the material tricks the human eye by bending light around a person or object. Although the firm has provided only “mockups” in lieu of proof of concept—CEO Guy Cramer says he cannot show the actual technology for security reasons—the company insists it has the backing of both the U.S. Pentagon and the Canadian military.
Matt Murdock from the Daredevil comics may be blind, but his “radar sense” allows him to detect people and objects around him. In a similar vein, a head-mounted display from Madrid’s Universidad Carlos III allows the visually impaired to navigate their surroundings. Using a pair of micro-monitors, the headgear communicates the outlines of oncoming objects to its user in real time, using color to denote distance.
Jean Grey’s telekinetic powers are closer to the realm of possibility than you might think. José ‘Pepe’ L. Contreras-Vidal, an associate professor of kinesiology at the University of Maryland is working on a brain cap that translates thoughts into motion. Although Conteras-Vidal and his team are focusing on helping the paralyzed or disabled extend their range of motion, the noninvasive, sensor-lined cap could eventually harness brain waves to control computers, prosthetic limbs, motorized wheelchairs, and even digital avatars.
Bioengineers at the University of Auckland have created inexpensive and lightweight rubber generators, based on artificial-muscle technology, that can harvest up to a watt of power when embedded in your shoes. It may be a while before you can shoot electricity from your fingertips à la Black Lightning , but it’s still a development worth getting a charge over.
Brazilian police are taking law-enforcement cues from an unlikely source: ’80s sci-fi action movies. For the 2014 World Cup, authorities will be wearing RoboCop-like glasses outfitted with tiny cameras to scan and identify bad guys lurking in the crowd. The futuristic shades can snap 400 facial images per second—as far away as 12 miles—before sending them to a central database of 13 million faces for comparison.