Stanford neuroscientist David Eagleman invented the Versatile Extra-Sensory Transducer (VEST), a wearable tactile display that translates myriad kinds of information, from speech to sounds to digital data, into patterns of vibrations on the skin. The device was inspired by Eagleman's study of synesthesia, the fascinating neurological phenomenon whereby stimulation of one sense involuntarily triggers another sensory pathway. From Smithsonian:
The neuroscientist believes that the versatility and plasticity of the brain make it fundamentally receptive to forming new pathways of sensory input. "The brain gets this information from the world, but the brain doesn't actually have any way of knowing: were these photons, were these sound compression aids, was this pressure?" Eagleman says. As he explains it, the brain simply transforms these diverse stimuli into electrochemical spikes and uses these signals to create a mental representation of the world. The VEST would do this same work for all sorts of data by translating it into interpretable vibrations—giving its wearer a veritable "sixth sense."
Eagleman is developing the VEST with an open API, so that others can experiment with the types of data it can convert into vibrations. "We've thought of 20 really cool things to feed in, which we've been experimenting with, but the community will think of 20,000 streams of data to feed in," he says.