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Sensory Replacement Helmet

Easing the Street | Projects

  • In the Easing the Street studio, we all had the same goal: to design and create a device that would make being homeless either in or outside of the shelter easier. We visited a homeless shelter in the beginning of the first two weeks, and talked to several people who work closely with homeless people one of whom was also formerly homeless. Homeless shelters are incredibly helpful and important, but upon visiting it was made clear that homeless people lose much of their autonomy there. There were extremely strict restrictions on when people were allowed to come and leave, how much they could eat, what they could do while at the shelter, etc.

    Our team came together and knew that we wanted to focus on giving homeless people their autonomy back. After a few days of brainstorming, diagramming, mocking-up, and discussion, we decided to work on a sensory replacement/modification helmet that would give the user the ability to replace 3/5 of their senses (sight, hearing, and scent). Our final project accomplished this through using a viewing port with adjustable filters, a small tray placed directly underneath the viewing port that could insert any scent, and a 3-piece plastic ear cavern that replicates the sound of the ocean.

    This was a thought-provoking project not only in that it straddled the line between conceptual and practical, but there were deeper layers behind our intent as well as our final product. Yes, our entire aim was to give homeless people autonomy through giving them control of their immediate surroundings. But we still end up being the ones dictating what their choices were.

  • We started this studio off by getting a crash course on what homelessness really means and looks like. We watched interviews with homeless people, visited an overnight homeless shelter (the Pine Street Inn in Boston), and talked to a doctor that worked with homeless people, as well as someone who both works in a family shelter and was once homeless. Following that, everyone in the studio verbalized many, many problems that homeless people face-stigma, loss of autonomy, theft, storage, hygiene, etc.-as well as possible ideas for devices to solve these problems (or at least make them a little easier).

    Dylan and I both wanted to focus on giving homeless people autonomy. The very first idea we came up with was a collapsible bed/storage area, but this was weak in that it wasn’t really specific to homeless people’s problems. We then decided to create a helmet that creates a personal, private area for those in a shelter. The overarching goal was to give them some control and peace in their immediate surroundings. How do we do this? Well, rather than sensory deprivation, the helmet replaces 3/5 senses: hearing, sight, and smell.

    For hearing, we knew we wanted to make a shell-type ear area, to allow the user to hear the ocean and dampen all other outside sounds. This was one of the simplest parts of the project. The only significant change it went through was the addition of a circular outside lid, as well as more convient screw hole placement.

    Dylan worked on the sight portion of the helmet, which had many iterations. The first model was inspired by a 70’s Viewmaster. It was essentially a photo reel placed about 4.5” away from the face, with a soothing image that could be switched out for another by turning the reel, placed at the end. He made than seven different itterations of the Viewport, all of which were important to the success of the project, and each design getting better and better. At first, we thought that the shape of the viewport as an octagon would be best for comfort and asthetic purposes, but it made the project too complex for our time frame, so we modified it to a boxy shape, which was still effective.

    As for the scent portion, my original plan was to have a small cavity in the helmet near the nose for a scent strip. We elected to use lavender, citrus, and cinnamon scents for their appealing smell and the positive effects they have.

    My end result was clunky, ugly, and ineffective. It was an open, rectangular tray for the scent strip, paired with an open nose hold, and placed adjacent to the user’s nostril. To fix this, I made a cardboard model-which was much slimmer and actually worked-before modeling the new one on the computer.

    The nose piece handled-at least temporarily-we had to start to design how all of this was going to be connected. We chose to make a 3D-printed rib that would slot into the viewport and nose piece and hold them together. This idea was scrapped a few days later though, because we were running out of time. As for the ear pieces, I designed them with side openings for a securing strap to go through.

    The fourth and final change for the nose piece came in the form of scrapping nearly all of it. The nose piece is now a tray with a sliding bottom that contains a scent strip, placed directly under a nostril hole in the view port. This major change coincided with the shift from an image reel to a color wheel. This was because having images placed directly in front of you doesn’t actually modify your surroundings, whereas a filtered lens can. We knew we wanted the lenses to be accessed for the side, so for this model, we had to design a system to flip down the filters in a smooth manner. After prototyping it, we found it was extremely uncomfortable to wear. Contouring the edge of the box to fit the facial structure of the wearer made it perfect.

    We also needed a way to attach the strap to the viewport. Taking inspiration from hard hats and mining headlights, we got a black elastic strip of fabric and sewed it over a clip placed on the that went on the back of your head which had a strip on top of your head and around it to help distribute the weight of the goggles. The ear piece was also attached onto the straps so that everything can be kept together very easily.

    Obviously, as presenting day got closer, we became much busier. The scent tray was printed three times in total-the first time, the screw holes for attaching to the view port were too small and in an inconvenient position. In addition, the bottom of the smaller piece was too wide to slide into the larger, and the indentation for the scent strip wasn't deep enough. The second time, I moved the screw holes to be 3 in a row and adjusted the other problems, but the front of the larger piece was still too tall to accept the smaller. I'll print the third and hopefully final version tomorrow. Besides that, I also started working on the ear portion. It will be made of three pieces: two wooden oval shapes with slots to accept the back helmet strap, and one hollow 3D printed piece. Placed together it creates a cavern around an ear.

    The buckle for containing the straps were one of our lowest priorities, but it didn’t take too long to model. The final had two openings on opposite sides, for attaching the strap going around the side of the head. There was also an opening at the top for a strap going across the top of the head (extra security) which was sewn in place. My first version was slightly too large, but the final was a pretty tight fit, which is what we wanted-effective and efficient.

    Less than two weeks after starting this project, we had working prototypes of all three major components, and it took only a few hours to assemble the entire thing.

    Had we gone further with this project, we would have made all the senses have one specific soothing theme-the forest, an open field, etc. So for example, the ear pieces might have an audio track of the woods or another rural area not commonly found in large cities. The scent would be pine, or flowers, and the image reel would be similarly themed.