Technology 5 min read

VR Wearables Like These Might Mean Completely new Senses for Humans



A new VR wearable is restoring quality of life for the deaf and may have implications that reach far beyond the human experience.

VR tech is pretty amazing, but a new development has kind of changed the game when it comes to what VR can do for us.

By now we all know how virtual spaces can be useful. Classrooms, for instance, would benefit from VR by providing a safe place for people to congregate in and by giving teachers tools that will allow them to literally render information in the virtual air, changing the learning experience for students across the world.

And while virtual spaces are cool, and we have undoubtedly only scratched the surface of what they can do, this latest development is something that gives me a bit of hope for humanity because it uses VR tech to give deaf people the ability to hear.

Now, this kind of bionic isn’t exactly new. The cochlear implant, for instance, has given hearing back to thousands of people lucky enough to live in a time where we can replace it. The difference, though, is in the delivery. Instead of needing an expensive and invasive surgery, recipients of this new tech need only wear a VR-enabled vest.

Versatile Extra-Sensory Transducer, or VEST

The VEST system consists of a haptic vest dotted with 32 separate motors. The motors translate audio input in a special way, creating neural input that mirrors what comes from the cochlea. In more basic terms, the vest turns your torso into an ear. You may have heard of the cochlear implant, which gives some deaf people a mechanical sense of hearing, and this vest is the same thing minus the implant.

Sounds incredible, right? Well, it is, but it provides us with a proof-of-concept for the principle of sensory substitution, which tells us that the brain will accept the right format of data regardless of where it comes from. So, if you could implant an ear anywhere on your body, it would be able to hear as long as it is feeding your brain the proper data.

The vest’s creator, David Eagleman, has high hopes for his new invention. He is developing the tech through Neosensory, a start-up that Eagleman helped create, and he has lofty goals past this newest sensation (pun not intended, but applicable). With the proof of sensory substitution laid in front of him, the intrepid inventor hopes to explore the possibility of creating entirely new senses for humans to experience.

That’s right, Eagleman doesn’t just want to give back something people lost or never had, he wants to expand what it means to be human, something we at Edgy Labs have been keeping an eye on.

Don’t Forget About the Cyborgs

If you’ve been coming here for a few months you may have seen our article on some very real and totally non-fictional cyborgs. While those cyborgs didn’t have any bionic replacements, they did look toward a future of expanded senses, much like Eagleman. Of course, while those cyborgs were intent on knowing true north, Eagleman is taking it a step further by trying to recreate the sense of hearing.

According to the VEST’s inventor, the brain’s ability to understand the data coming from the VEST is learned, and it happens on an unconscious level. So, the brain does have to learn how to translate the input from the device, but the user won’t notice that it is doing so.

This information isn’t just a supposition, either. Eagleman and his team are hard at work trying to understand as much as they can about the VEST, and the ‘why’ is just as important as the ‘how’ when describing how the device works.

The team believes that the brain’s ability to unconsciously integrate the new data into sensory recognition may lend itself to inventing and integrating entirely new senses, and if they can understand why the brain works that way, they will be well on their way toward proving whether or not new senses are even possible.

David Eagleman and Neosensory developed an extra-sensory VR vest.Click To Tweet

By now you have likely forgotten that the vest is VR-enabled, which makes sense because it doesn’t fit into the mold of what we commonly think of as a VR product. What this product does is unique; it expands what we think of when we think of VR, and it also circumvents the need for a surgical implant to restore hearing. It’s a double-whammy that gives us two amazing improvements for the low, low price of insane amounts of research and development.

And the whole thing leaves me with just one final parting thought: How will the scientific community top this one? I have no doubt that they will, but with developments like this I think I can safely say that there is no telling what kinds of mind-blowing things are coming from Industry 4.0.

But whatever comes down the pipeline, you can rest assured that we’ll tell you all about it.

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