Human Echolocation

Hello dear readers!

So far on this blog, we have made a bunch of posts about how technology is being used to help people overcome their lack of vision in a number of ways. But this time, we will focus on something that does not require any external tools. A skill that every human is able to master, but also one that is largely unknown by the public: Human Echolocation.

If your first reaction is somewhere along the lines of “that’s something for bats, not humans”, then you react in the same way I did when I first found out about it. But it is very much possible and several humans have already been able to master it, such as the boy in this video:

What he does is called “active echolocation”, where he himself produces sound, and relies on differences when he listens to this sounds to determine whether there is anything nearby, and even what it is. In order to achieve this, any sound will do, but some work better than others. The clicking sound the boy in the video makes is one of the more efficient ways. It has a relatively high frequency, meaning it (or its echoes) will not easily be made inaudible due to environmental sounds. Also, since the clicking does not require you to exhale, it allows you to use this technique for longer without getting a completely dry mouth, which would not only be an unpleasant feeling, but would make it more difficult to produce the same frequency of sound on top of that.

 People can learn this skill regardless of whether they’re blind or not: it requires only a few hours of practice per day over the span of several weeks to start perceiving whether there is an object in front of you. Further refinement can happen of course, as is shown in the video. Although it is often said that blind people have better hearing, people with perfect eyesight have been known to teach themselves this skill to a certain degree.

Not convinced? Want proof? Have proof! You’re using it already. Passive echolocation, as it’s called, is the counterpart to active echolocation, where you do not make sound yourself, but instead listen to sounds from the environment to determine what said environment looks like. I am sure you’re familiar with footsteps in an empty church, or music played in a concert hall, as opposed to talking to another person in your room. These might be simple things, but thay’re based around the same principles as echolocation.

Although the use of it for visually impaired people is clear, it is still the question what a person with good eyesight can gain from this skill other than having a party trick. It has been suggested that professions that might lead you to low-light environments, like firefighters, might have a use for it, but that seems somewhat  up for debate. Perhaps you, dear reader, have some ideas and suggestions? Let us know in the comments!


Further reading:


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