|Daniel Kish, Executive Director of World Access for the Blind is seen here teaching a student echolocation with a piece of plexiglass. The student is listening for echoes as they bounce off the glass. Daniel is the first certified blind Orientation & Mobility Specialist in the world. He is one of the world's foremost experts on echolocation. The blind can be taught to "see" by using echolocation along with the latest technological advances in the field. You can learn more about him at worldaccessfortheblind.org.|
Kuljit Mithra: How do you discern the size and shape of objects around you using echolocation?
Daniel Kish: Using echolocation, one can break environmental features down according to height, width, location, and density. It has to do with the shape and timbre of the sound waves that return. For more information on this, look on our web site under "information and publications"; there is a training guide on echolocation that talks about this. There is a more scholarly look in the publication entitled "Sonic Echolocation: a modern review of the literature."
Mithra: Are there any activities besides the obvious (reading, driving, etc.) that echolocation doesn't work for?
Kish: Of course. Echolocation is seeing with flashes of very dim light. Most people would have difficulty doing anything under such circumstances. But, with practice and adaptation, one learns to extract as much information as possible from this minimal stimuli. Still, this can only go so far. For example, even the best echolocation users must still use a cane, because echolocation does not allow you to detect drop-offs. In our mountaineering club, we are all very effective, but we all use canes and hiking sticks. Also, interacting with very small objects like catching a baseball cannot be done reliably with current technology.
Mithra: When using the echolocation, can you determine what is around you in a 360 degrees view, or is it just what is in front of you?
Kish: 360, but the front is the clearest.
Mithra: Have you had any opposition to teaching this to blind students?
Kish: Yes, some. The current professions don't really understand how powerful this is. Some object to the use of the tongue click. Others are afraid that people will rely too heavily on it, and less on their other skills like the cane. We teach all skills together, and we don't have a problem with tongue clicking.
Mithra: Have you ever heard of or read about Daredevil? If so, what's your opinion of the character and do you think the echolocation you teach is comparable to his "powers"? Similarities and differences?
Kish: I read one story when I was in the 8th grade; I have not seen the movie. I recall Daredevil with some small angst, because other kids in junior high used to tease me about why I couldn't do the things that Daredevil could. Daredevil uses ultrasonar, which is much more powerful than sonic sonar. This allowed him to detect objects much further away, and with precision. Nowadays, technology could probably allow this, and we are working on developing such techology. Our powers are similar in type, but very different in intensity. In 5 years, however, this will change.
Mithra: In the comics, Daredevil is taught by a blind man named Stick to feel the environment around him, sort of like a natural radar sense that he says everyone possesses. Do you think sighted individuals could learn from you? Advantages? Disadvantages?
Kish: The 3 keys to developing this skill are motivation, necessity, and practice. Sighted people tend to be low in all these areas. They don't have the motivation to apply themselves to the effort; they don't need the skill so there's no necessity; and because of their vision, they don't gain experience by practicing. Rather than learn echolocation so a sighted person could "see in the dark" they're much more likely to just turn on the lights. It's much easier, and, if truth be told, more effective.
We have nearly completed development of an echolocation enhancement device called SoundFlash which will triple echo efficiency. We are laying the groundwork for an artificial eye that will communicate it's information to the brain through sound and touch displays. It will have the acuity of human vision.
(c) Kuljit Mithra 2004
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