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Medicine Idle

You, Too, Can Learn Echolocation 133

Posted by timothy
from the and-you-swear-this-isn't-a-joke dept.
The Narrative Fallacy writes "Wired reports that with just a few weeks of training, you can learn to 'see' objects in the dark using echolocation the same way dolphins and bats do. Acoustic expert Juan Antonio Martinez at the University of Alcalá de Henares in Spain has developed a system to teach people how to use echolocation, a skill that could be particularly useful for the blind and for people who work under dark or smoky conditions, like firefighters — or cat burglars. 'Two hours per day for a couple of weeks are enough to distinguish whether you have an object in front of you,' says Martinez. 'Within another couple weeks you can tell the difference between trees and pavement.' To master the art of echolocation, you can begin by making the typical 'sh' sound used to make someone be quiet. Moving a pen in front of the mouth can be noticed right away similar to the phenomenon when traveling in a car with the windows down, which makes it possible to 'hear' gaps in the verge of the road. The next level is to learn how to master 'palate clicks,' special clicks with your tongue and palate that are better than other sounds because they can be made in a uniform way, work at a lower intensity, and don't get drowned out by ambient noise. With the palate click you can learn to recognize slight changes in the way the clicks sound depending on what objects are nearby. 'For all of us in general, this would be a new way of perceiving the world,' says Martinez."
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You, Too, Can Learn Echolocation

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  • No duh (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward

    I believe Ripley's Believe It or Not, the TV show, already did a story on people who could do this.

    • Re:No duh (Score:5, Informative)

      by paleo2002 (1079697) on Saturday July 04, 2009 @08:22PM (#28583759)
      I remember seeing a story on Dateline or 20/20 a while back about several blind people who are already using this method of echolocation. One of them, a young boy, taught himself to see with sound by listening to how a desktop fan changed sound when he spoke into it. Now he can ride a bike around his neighborhood, navigate, avoid cars, etc.
      • I read about this about 40 years ago. I've practiced it a little, myself, and I've always assumed that blind people used the technique all the time. I'm surprised that anyone considers this new.

        Incidentally, for near-distance location, a hiss works better than 'shh'.

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by 4D6963 (933028)

          Actually an earlier and probably more impressive example would be the case of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Holman [wikipedia.org] who in the early and mid 19th century travelled around the world using echolocation.

        • Re:No duh (Score:5, Insightful)

          by lordsid (629982) on Sunday July 05, 2009 @05:09AM (#28585439)
          It's not really important that its new or not. Everyone bemoaning this article so far has done so because they "heard" of a few people doing it. Well that really doesn't help the masses. To do that you need a way to reproduce the technique for other people who could use to learn it. The point is they developed a system to TEACH it, not just the method of echolocation itself.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by johncadengo (940343)

        I'm not sure if this is the boy you're referring to, but here [youtube.com] is a documentary about a young boy named Ben Underwood [wikipedia.org] who is blind and has taught himself echo location [wikipedia.org]. It is pretty amazing.

    • It's going to be real fucking useful on the internet. This is an idea whose time has come and gone.

      • by SEWilco (27983)
        It's useful for dodging trolls.
        click click shhh snap
  • innate? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    I noticed I unconsciouly tongue-click when looking for stuff. Shrug.

    "Now where did I put it <click> <click> <click>"

  • Shook head, looked at calendar....

    Nope. Wrong date...

    Got to be true!

    .

  • by Walt Dismal (534799) on Saturday July 04, 2009 @08:26PM (#28583775)
    Before the unfortunate accident where I was blinded by a radioactive cylinder that fell off a truck, I could not echolocate. But now I am a successful lawyer by day and a blind but superpowered crimefighter by night. You too can have superpowers but there is a sacrifice to be made. You must avoid Windows.
    • Are you the governor of New York state?

      Seems only fair that if California gets the Terminator New York would get superhero - although I would have expected it to be Batman.

    • by rdnetto (955205)

      radioactive cylinder

      Actually, it was a cylinder of biological waste.

      • Originally, Spiderman was bitten by a radioactive spider. In the live-action movies, it was a genetically engineered one.
        Are you sure the source of DD's abilities stayed the same in every incarnation?
      • No, in the original comic - which I own, so let's not dispute this - a radioactive cylinder fell off a truck, hit Matt as a kid and that was the origin story.
        • by rdnetto (955205)
          Sorry, I was talking about the 2003 film. I guess they changed it since the nuclear waste device is way too overused.
          • Radioactive stuff stopped being cool for super heroes when we learned that the only thing radiation did was give cancer. One day we'll stop the biochemical origin story too (I think).

    • You too can have superpowers but there is a sacrifice to be made. You must avoid Windows.

      Is that you, Steve Jobs?

    • He uses his sonar to make up for lack of site. Therefore, he echolocates just like Ben Underwood.
  • Finally! (Score:5, Funny)

    by narcc (412956) on Saturday July 04, 2009 @08:33PM (#28583793) Journal

    This is exactly what I've been looking for: Something else to do while I'm sitting alone in the dark.

    • by Robin47 (1379745)
      Oh, man! And I just spent my mod points on the last story...
    • Re: (Score:1, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Great, now you might be able to tell which direction the grue is coming from.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday July 04, 2009 @08:35PM (#28583799)

    Yes, sneaking around the dark house at night screaming at the walls to find your way around. The epitome of stealth!

  • I am a firefighter (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday July 04, 2009 @08:37PM (#28583803)

    ...you insensitive clod. ...and one can't hear much in a working structure fire other than one's SCBA, the sounds of the fire, and your buddy on the hoseline.

    Which is why we have flashlights and IR cameras mounted on our helmets.

    Echolocation can be learned, just not applied in every low-light environment.

    • by iYk6 (1425255) on Saturday July 04, 2009 @09:43PM (#28584035)

      ...you insensitive clod. ...and screeching while stealing stuff is generally considered a bad idea in my profession.

    • You have IR cams mounted on your helmets? Seriously? We have one per unit officer. What kind? Agreed though, it would be nice if this were useful. I suppose I could build an ultrasonic device that would enable some of these capabilities -- IF it would be useful (unlikely) and IF I wanted to carry even more shit around with me.
    • by JshWright (931399)
      I disagree. Certainly the 'resolution' isn't as high, given the level of ambient noise and the muffling of your voice caused by the facepiece, but it's still useful. A quick shout can give you a pretty good impression of the size of the room you're in, and any immediate obstacles. Paying attention to sounds (of both the passive and active origin) is a very important aspect of situational awareness in low visibility situations.

      Of course, life may be different for you water boys on the end of a hoseline. :p
  • by MillionthMonkey (240664) on Saturday July 04, 2009 @08:41PM (#28583811)
    ... or he would echolocate the dog, and nothing else. When she hears "ssh" noises, she starts barking defensively to scare off intruders. (The hissy reptilian character of "ssh" probably doesn't help in general.)

    So if I had anything to add here, it would be: if it's possible at all that You, Too, Can Learn Echolocation, it's certainly not going to be possible within earshot of my stupid dog.
    • by maxume (22995)

      At least she doesn't start barking when she thinks there may be someone within a quarter mile of your house. I was walking a gravel road yesterday and some damn dog barked itself out of breath, as apparently I was a threat. Stupid owner.

  • Done that myself (Score:5, Interesting)

    by erroneus (253617) on Saturday July 04, 2009 @08:41PM (#28583813) Homepage

    While I am not sure I could pull off flying at night, I know I could easily use it to avoid walking into walls at night... I've done it. It's far from a big deal. The method of sound generation I used was snapping my fingers, though, and not clicking my mouth which I think would confuse my ears even more since my mouth is connected to my ears. But repeatedly snapping my fingers around my head while stepping forward allowed me to appreciate the changes in acoustics well enough to know where walls and other large objects were. On the other hand, it's not quite good enough to avoid stepping on toys left out by my two year old.

    The picture we get from such a technique is no picture at all. To create a picture, we would need a dense array of ears of great sensitivity not unlike a retina. At best you can sense that something is there and perhaps how solid it may be. After all, a curtain would mask echoes while walls do a nice job of bouncing the signals.

    Still, I am quite certain that blind people already do this without thinking about it. While they may not intentionally send out "pings" in the form of clicks or snaps, they quite likely hear other signals such as the brush of their feet on the carpet, the knock of their feet on the floor or even the rustling of their clothes or the sound of the air flowing from the HVAC system. All of these things generate enough noise signal the allow the notice of the change of acoustic feedback as one to detect changes in the surroundings.

    • by wagnerrp (1305589) on Saturday July 04, 2009 @09:16PM (#28583941)

      But repeatedly snapping my fingers around my head while stepping forward allowed me to appreciate the changes in acoustics well enough to know where walls and other large objects were. On the other hand, it's not quite good enough to avoid stepping on toys left out by my two year old.

      Normally one would just turn on the lights, as it's less likely to wake the two year old than incessant clicking or snapping of fingers.

      • by Twisted64 (837490)

        Normally one would just turn on the lights, as it's less likely to wake the two year old than incessant clicking or snapping of fingers.

        I don't know about everyone, but my father absolutely HATES turning on the light in the middle of the night, I think because it wakes him up. It certainly was creepy finding him on the toilet in total darkness... but in those cases other senses would alert me to his presense.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      Doing it for large objects is between easy and effortless.

      Doing it for small objects is hard.

      I keep colliding into small, hard objects I don't know the location of if I try to navigate by sound in the dark.

      And after that I usually swear, so others can locate me in the dark.

      • by dgatwood (11270)

        Exactly. I can hear my bedpost if I'm pointed the right direction, but it is variable. Hearing the walls is easy. Hearing that barbell you accidentally left on the floor, however. is really hard. Fortunately, your feet have no problem "locating" such things....

        The biggest problem with echolocation for humans is not hearing sensitivity or mental ability. It's the fact that our feet don't follow behind our heads except when we're swimming.... We would need a second set of ears on our ankles for echoloca

        • by erroneus (253617)

          A simple and profound observation... it somewhat matches the observations of others such as myself citing my son's toys, however, I like the way you put it better ... our bodies do not follow our heads during normal travel and so it is ineffective.

        • by Alsee (515537)

          We would need a second set of ears on our ankles for echolocation to be practical.

          The delivery room doctor told my mother it was a "defect".

          -

    • Back in the 70s or 80s, there was a study published by the Scientific American investigating the source of the ability that had developed in some blind to perceive the locations of objects, or at least get an idea of their environment. The subjects themselves had many thoughts about the source of their abilities, some describing it as a pressure they felt on their forehead, but all lost their rudimentary abilities when their ears were covered.

      My parents have a copy of the study, but unfortunately, I do not

      • by Pikoro (844299)
        Apparently you are not "clicking" enough if you cannot find it (aren't double puns wonderful)
    • On the other hand, it's not quite good enough to avoid stepping on toys left out by my two year old.

      Acoustic expert Juan Antonio Martinez at the University of Alcalà de Henares in Spain says it takes 'Two hours per day for a couple of weeks' to learn echolocation. On the other had, we have the toddler, for which it takes at least 18 years to learn to clean up his garbage after him.

    • by JCZwart (1585673)
      This [youtube.com] (small) documentary about Daniel Kish, a blind person using echolocation, suggests these blind people use this technique in a quite advanced manner. See the 'test' they perform on one of the blind people featured in the film, at about 4:20. Sounds like he's able to hear much, much more than just some surroundings. At the end, they even go out mountainbiking.

      If ever I should become blind, I'd surely investigate in this technique.
    • The picture we get from such a technique is no picture at all. To create a picture, we would need a dense array of ears of great sensitivity not unlike a retina.

      As I understand it, the picture we get from such a technique is exactly a picture -- it's formulated in the same areas of our brain, and subject to the same mental operations. As others have pointed out, we get a lot more information from our ears than we would get from two single-pixel image sensors. (Think about how you can tell, from a pair of receptors at opposite sides of your head, whether a sound is coming from ahead or behind, above or below.)

    • The method of sound generation I used was snapping my fingers, though, and not clicking my mouth which I think would confuse my ears even more since my mouth is connected to my ears.

      By using your mouth for clicking, the clicks resonate in frequencies tuned to your internal structures and the returns are also in resonance with your internal structures. This cause a much greater increase in sensitivity and resolution than non-resonant returns would cause, at least that's what I'd imagine from reported research on bats.

    • by CAIMLAS (41445)

      I do this, too. In a familiar environment I've always been very good at pitch-dark navigation. It's immediately difficult after turning off the lights (seems it takes a moment or three for the brain to switch over), but I'll use the sounds of the creaking floor (and so on) for navigation.

      When I was a teen I used to walk around in our basement in the dark. I didn't use a clicking or 'shh' sound, I used more of a guttural, deep grunt (a throat growl, if you will). I've got very high frequency sensitivity, so

    • by hawk (1151)

      >Still, I am quite certain that blind people already do this without thinking about it.

      Not quite without thinking about it. However, my uncle (and no doubt many, many more) have been teaching the blind to do this with the taps of their cane for (at least) decades.

      hawk

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday July 04, 2009 @08:43PM (#28583817)

    This would be utterly useless for firefighters as they all wear SCBA which requires a full face mask. Further more your ability to hear those clicks are again reduced by gear over your ears, radio chatter and the often very dense smoke around you soaks up large volumes of noise.

    This would take serious adaptation to make it even remotely feasible for someone in that scenario. If you're on a hose crew you can just outright forget it all together.

    • by ti-coune (837201)
      well, how about if the sounds are emitted from a small speaker on the person's chest or helmet and the echo captured by an array of small microphones on the same place. Then a microcomputer translates these echoes back into audible sounds in earphones. Im sure someone could learn to "see" these signals. just a thought...
    • I'd go for a technical solution. An emitter for ultrasonic sound, a receiver, a computer to visualize it and a display to show it. Sounds more useful.

      Provided you want to haul that thing around in a situation where you're already lugging half a ton of other stuff around, of course.

  • Blind Wille McTell (Score:2, Interesting)

    by LD HL,4000h (824820)
    I remember reading a while ago that Delta Blues musician Blind Willie McTell [wikipedia.org] could do this, I always assumed that it was just another weird blues legend, but I'm absolutely stunned to find that it might have been true.
    Maybe Robert Johnson really did sell his soul to the Devil.
    • by linguizic (806996)

      Maybe Robert Johnson really did sell his soul to the Devil.

      The apocryphal part of that legend isn't that Robert Johnson sold his soul, it's that he sold his soul to the devil. He actually sold it to a nerdy little dweeb with blue hair for $5. After that he had a hard time going through automatic doors.

  • Ben Underwood (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    Who was blind had a documentary about him (before he passed,MHRIP) called

    Extraordinary People - The boy who sees without eyes [youtube.com]

    truly amazing, but then is it ? he learned this from an early age and didnt think it was anything special same as most of us take seeing light reflected off objects for granted

    Iam more in awe of programmers who are blind (like this guy [gamesfortheblind.com], now that takes a special kind of mind.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by MichaelSmith (789609)
      My mother used to teach children who are both deaf and blind. They used taxies quite a bit to move children between home and school. One day the taxi driver got the destination totally wrong. The child knew straight away they were going the wrong way and tried to tell the driver but unfortunately the driver assumed he knew better and kept going.

      Without sight and hearing you still have a lot of input from your senses. Your skin can detect photons (nice and warm sitting here in the sun) and vibration (hapti
  • What is it like to be a bat? [consciousentities.com]

    Of course actually knowing the answer to the question itself may not help address the philosophical issues raised by the question.

  • Why not.. (Score:1, Redundant)

    by Roskolnikov (68772)

    Instead of relying on sound made from ones own mouth, why not rely on a simple emitter around your neck making the clicks for you? sounds silly but resolution would become a problem pretty quick.

    still, very cool.

    • by drinkypoo (153816)

      why not rely on a simple emitter around your neck

      You would need to mount it to your head for best performance, e.g. at the temples, because it needs to be directional, like turning your head and clicking. Because of the reduced frequency emission of the human mouth and the reduced sensitivity of our hearing organs compared to a bat, you'll want to be able to move your head freely.

  • Did anyone else read the headline as 'chocolateion? Mmmm, chocolate ion!

    Why can't we have more "Stuff That Matters" articles on chocolate? :)
  • read Slashdot on LCD by using Echolocation....never success yet, and found that listen to the RSS clip read aloud by the robotic overload works much better.

  • There's a rather more informative article about it here [sciencedaily.com].

  • I wonder how many people started shhh'ing and hissing and clicking when they read this story, would've been funny when u walk past a cubicle and someone doing that :p

    imagine when you have 10 people in a room doing that, how can u filter out that static?
    • by enFi (1401137)

      Actually, I'd becurious to know whether lots of people clicking produced interference, or instead produced better coverage of the environment; I suspect the latter, so long as the different people are not producing identical clicks at exactly the same time.

  • I'm pretty sure everyone has at least some subconscious awareness of their environment based on echoes. I recall one time where I walked into a room in my house and stopped dead because the echoes of my footfalls were so strange; the room had been cleared of all the junk that normally cluttered it. If you pay attention you will notice how the sound of your steps or of your voice changes as you move about.
  • Tons of blind people use clickers as they walk around. Not always, because it attracts attention.

    That is actually the secondary usefulness of a cane (after visibility). You can make tappy-sounds without attracting undue attention.
  • It's easy. All it takes is a few hundred thousand years and some careful breeding programs.
  • What about chirping instead of clicking? Clicking is good because it's short, but because it's short it's low powered, whereas if you chirp then you have more power coming out. I wonder how that'd work out for human echolocation too.

    • by 32771 (906153)

      Well they explained the ease of use issues, but chirping only produces a certain frequency at a time while clicks cover a broader and higher frequency range.

      I doubt your statement that clicks are low powered because they are short btw.

      However, now that I'm thinking about chirps, if you could chirp at high frequencies and had good frequency resolution you could use this while moving and use the Doppler effect, to locate objects.

      If you think about using correlation to get better time resolution by processing

      • by 32771 (906153)

        This seems to be an interesting book on the topic:

        Title: Blip, ping & buzz: making sense of radar and sonar
        Author: Mark Denny
        Edition: illustrated
        Publisher: JHU Press, 2007
        ISBN: 0801886651, 9780801886652
        Length: 274 pages

        Google books offers a preview.

      • by 4D6963 (933028)

        I doubt your statement that clicks are low powered because they are short btw.

        ...

        I don't see how anyone can "doubt" this, I mean if you can only make a noise so loud with your mouth it matters whether it lasts a thousandth of a second or half a second.

        So yeah as for chirps, chirps only produce a frequency at a time but the freuqnecy it produces at a time is very transient, i.e. a chirp is constantly moving. So if you have an echo, you'll hear distinctively if it's a chirp, when you wouldn't if you just

  • I'm always clicking away as I stumble downstairs and don't want to wake up the wife and kids.

  • I'm a climber [gdargaud.net] and I can relate this story of a mountain guide I know who used a whistle to navigate on a glacier while in a full whiteout. He knew more or less the topography of the cliffs nearby and would blow short whistles, time the echo and estimate the distance to the various cliffs while continuing to walk with his clients. It was in the time before the GPSes, but those aren't very accurate on mountains anyway.
  • I remember watching a show on discovery about this many years ago, they'd have special clickers in their hand that sound like a bottle cap with the tampering pop up depressed. They showed off blind people walking without poles, identifying object around them. And some people riding bikes too! Even a live demonstration of a man who has never used the method before navigating an unfamiliar room just be clicks.

It was kinda like stuffing the wrong card in a computer, when you're stickin' those artificial stimulants in your arm. -- Dion, noted computer scientist

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