Thursday, June 28, 2012

Overcoming Vision Loss with Echolocation

Worldwide, there are nearly 40 million people who suffer from blindness.  If you are struggling with vision loss or if you have been blind since a young age, you know all about the obstacles that need to be overcome to get by in modern society. In the US we are fortunate to have modern technologies and complex methods of overcoming these adversities, such as schools and foundations for the blind, guide dogs, and even the simple collapsible cane that is not available in many less fortunate countries.

If you do not have the conveniences or support structure to assist you in overcoming these obstacles, you may feel isolated and completely dependent upon family members to care for you. I know that there are hundreds of thousands of blind people in less fortunate places in the world who have no one to care for them and lead extremely solitary, unfulfilled and unhealthy lives. Whether you are blessed with modern conveniences and support to help overcome your challenges or not, echolocation is a concept you should come to understand.

What is Echolocation?

Echolocation is the learned ability to sense the size, shape, location, distance and even construct of objects surrounding you without touching them (with your hands, cane or otherwise) or being told about them. As a hearing person, you have this capability, in the same way that you have the capability to enjoy good music.  If you've been without vision for a while, you probably use it to some extent without even knowing it.  Most blind people I speak with, in their effort to figure out what is going on around them, know this concept as "facial pressure", "air currents" or "ambient sound".  Before they learn what echolocation is they think this is a primitive way of getting a "sense" of the size of a room, or location of a door, etc.

Most people don't know that this is a skill that can be learned and improved upon in order to eventually give them a very real "vision" of the world around them, to an ever increasing level of detail.  Some completely blind people have been known to use echolocation to be able to "see" well enough to distinguish the difference between a coffee cup and a stapler on a table, find a ball in an open field, and even go mountain biking!

Senior scientist Dr Mel Goodale, from the University of Western Ontario, said:
"It is clear that echolocation enables blind people to do things that are otherwise thought to be impossible without vision, and in this way it can provide blind and vision-impaired people with a high degree of independence in their daily lives." 

How Can I Learn Echolocation?

The undisputed pioneer of echolocation in today's world has started a foundation called World Access for the Blind and has made it his life's work to teach blind people to see using echolocation.  His name is Daniel Kish and he has developed methods of teaching blind mobility in ways that no one else has.  I have spoken with Daniel and many of his colleagues at WAFTB and can assure you that they will be able to help you get started learning how to sensitize to echoes understand how you can best learn echolocation.

Everyone learns differently.  Some people learn through hearing, some learn through touching, but regardless, for echolocation you need to keep an open mind and trust that anything is possible.  It will come with time if you let it.  Personally, I have been documenting here on this blog how I best learn echolocation and doing my best to present different lessons and ways for new practitioners to approach it.  I will continue to dispel as much information and knowledge as I can on the subject, and with luck it will become more prominent, more practiced, and more socially acceptable among the blind.  Best of luck to you, and if you have any questions about getting started please feel free to contact me.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Broadening Awareness to Look at the Big Picture While Echolocating

In developing my senses, and approaching it like the engineer that I am, sometimes I think I get caught up in trying to analyze the sound and acoustics too much during echolocation.  I listen for objects that I know are there and try to calibrate all the intricacies of a particular sound to that particular object.  When navigating I generally try to "find" things or "search" for objects and references.  I do this one object at a time and diligently focus on the sound in order to quantify and define what I'm hearing.

I do this because I tend to think methodically and follow a somewhat scientific process when learning new things.  I also need to be able to put down in words what I am learning so that you can all clearly understand it as well as learn from it.

Recently, I've discovered that perhaps a "bigger picture" approach may be more beneficial.  Instead of focusing so intently on each object and trying to listen for details, pick a good simple click sound that you are comfortable with (recently I've been most comfortable with the "here kitty" or a simple "ssshhh" or white noise) and just be aware of your surroundings.  Listen to the sound, but not so intently as to analyze every click.  Just be aware.  Be aware with not only your hearing but your face and head.  Be aware with your sense of smell, sense of sight (even if you don't have it, try to picture your environment) and your sense of touch (not by reaching out, but by feeling the pressure of things around you).

Long ago, accomplished echolocators referred to this skill as facial hearing and it was interpreted as a type of "pressure" on the face.  I don't think they were actually feeling pressure via nerves, but rather interpreting sounds via echolocation through a facial "awareness".  Try to broaden your perception and forget about targeting specific objects or identifying exact surfaces.  By doing this it may give us a better perspective on the large scope of the "image".  Try it out and let me know what you find!  Enjoy!

"Here Kitty" Tongue Click for Easier, More Frequent Clicking

Recently, I have been trying to train more often, and I have access to some new, unfamiliar environments having just sold my house and moved to a new location.

Trying out a new echolocation click

I've been utilizing a new click style and that is the "tst tst tst".  This is what I'll call the "here kitty" sound because it is commonly used to call cats.  If you're not familiar with that, the tip of the tongue is placed on the roof of the mouth and a small amount of negative pressure, or vacuum pressure is drawn inside the mouth.  The sound is then made by pulling the tip of the tongue away from the roof of the mouth.

I like this method because the volume can be very soft or very loud depending on where you are and what you need.  Also, it is a very easy sound to make and can be made several times in a second without much effort.  I find that making the beacon sound more often, gives you a better resolution on the big picture.  All of our senses are based on recognizing the changes from one moment to the next.  Sound, taste, sight, touch, and smell are all based on a change in perception.  Echolocation is the same way.  There is a little more to it than that, but in some ways we are simply looking to distinguish the differences and changes in our environment, from one click to the next.  By making sounds closer together, we get a picture with finer detail.  Bats and dolphins make their beacon sound up to 200 times per second, and killer whales do it up to 500 times a second!

You can play with the frequency of this beacon by adjusting the shape of your mouth and it can be quite high if the corners of the mouth are spread wide, and generally higher frequencies give better response. so remember to smile while training!  

As always, I would love to hear comments from you on your thoughts and experiences!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Overcoming the Challenge of Learning Echolocation

As an engineer, I have been taking an approach to echolocation that I hope is informative.  I can only publish on this blog what I have learned for myself, first hand and then dispelled to you through somewhat scientific means of analysis.  That said, please let me know if you enjoy the way these articles are written.  My hope is that all of the readers can relate to my experiences or begin to have similar experiences of their own.

As a sighted person, I am at the unfortunate disadvantage of having a reduced capacity to utilize my visual cortex as a processing station, but far worse, I am not forced to diligently practice echolocation every single day as a blind person is.  Anyone looking to learn anything will always have challenges.  The process of learning requires an expenditure of energy that you will never get back.  However, you will get something far more valuable for your time and effort after taking on that challenge.  Often times far more than you sought to learn in the first place.

As a martial artist and entrepreneur, I thrive on challenges and I love understanding and exceeding my own limitations.  I think a lot of people have a hesitation to learning echolocation either because:

1.  They do not understand it

To which I say...  There is so much to life that we don't understand. Even the most advanced scientists in the world can not explain exactly how the brain works. It's up to each one of us as individuals to explore and discover our own capabilities and limitations.   Once we have discovered our limitations, only then will we be able to break free of them using creative thinking and diligent training.


2.  They simply think of it as an insurmountable challenge for them

Nothing is insurmountable.  If one person on this planet can do something, that means you can too.  How to get there is the tricky part, but it's also the fun part.

Use information provided by science.  It's sometimes misguided, and sometimes misused, but in essence - and in definition, science speaks the truth and is an incredible learning tool.  But science alone will not be a solution for all problems, there are things that it simply does not encompass, or has yet to explain.  To learn an internal skill like echolocation, you will also need to use introspection.

INTROSPECTION (or internal perception) is the self-examination of one's conscious thoughts and feelings. In psychology, the process of introspection relies exclusively on the purposeful and rational self-observation of one's mental state; however, introspection is sometimes referenced in a spiritual context as the examination of one's soul. Introspection is closely related to the philosophical concept of human self-reflection, and is contrasted with external observation.  --  Wikipedia
This means looking into yourself and finding answers, solutions and techniques that work for you.  It is taking what you know and piecing the puzzle together.  It is creating something from nothing.  Anyone can do it, and everyone should do it.  In martial arts we use introspection to understand how to move our bodies into certain positions and to learn what we need to do to strengthen our bodies for certain situations.

Life as a whole is a challenge.  It is an expenditure of energy to reach a goal.  Embrace the challenge and make it your own.  Perhaps most importantly, enjoy the process.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Beginner Echolocation Lesson #7 - Surface Training

This exercise will help you understand how to sense the perimeter of an object.  Remember that even if these exercises seem simple to you, every time you practice echolocation, even if just for a few minutes, it will help you develop your skill and tune your senses.  So keep practicing diligently and the harder lessons will start to become easier.

  1. Pick a flat object, not cloth, something like a piece of cardboard or wood.  The shape doesn't matter, as long as it is about 12" across.  A piece of paper is not great because it can make sounds of its own and we do not want that interfering with our training.  Give this object to a friend of family member to help you train.
  2. Find a spot outdoors or a large room without too many objects around.
    1. If you are inside, point yourself toward the corner of the room and not directly at a flat wall.  This will make it easier to differentiate between the object and the wall.
  3. Use your echolocating beacon and listen intently to the echoes it creates.
  4. Instruct your partner to slowly slide the flat object in front of you about 12-18 inches away from your face.  Don't tell them when to do it, just tell them to do it at random.  It's important that it is slow so that you don't hear any of the sounds related to them moving the object, like the rustling of clothes, changing their grip on the object, or air rushing around the corners of the object.
  5. Raise your hand when you have sensed the object so that they know you have sensed it and they can then remove it from in front of you.
  6. When you sense the object being removed from in front of you lower your hand.
  7. Do this repeatedly instructing your training partner to move the object further away from you after you are comfortable in one spot.
    1. At a certain distance, it will become difficult for your training partner to completely remove the object from in front of you without walking ten feet to one side.  You will certainly hear their footsteps and subconsciously use that as a clue, so instead of moving the object, just instruct them to turn it 90 degrees to that it is no longer facing you.
See how far away you can get and still accurately sense the object.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Intermediate Echolocation Lesson #2 - Scanning for Simple "Calibration" Targets

I'm currently packing up my house and my wife and I are moving to a new house in Maine.  As everything is out of order, furniture is out of place and there are tons of other obstacles (namely boxes) strewn about the house everywhere, I am, of course, taking this as an opportunity to practice echolocation in this new environment.

As I attempted to pick my way through a basement chock full of boxes I tried different sounds.  (Lately, I've been trying the "sshh" sound and having very good luck with it.  I'll write another post about the benefits of this type of beacon soon.)  I stood at one end of the basement, turned around in circles several times and then tried to pick my way through the room, admittedly using memory to identify the locations of some of the obstacles and attempting to correlate those memories to what I was picking up with echolocation.

Sound Reflections on
"Angled" vs "Flat"
Boxes are unique in that they are a very predictable size and shape and have nice flat exposed sides for reflecting sound.  Aiming downward at an object near my feet, it was easy to determine the edge of the object. The flat surface on the top of the box reflects sound straight back up at my face (ears) making it a great target.  Moving my head from side to side I was able to determine where the box was and how to go around it.  Boxes in front of me were more difficult especially if they are not facing me directly.  The illustration to the right shows sound being reflected off of two different boxes - one with a side facing me, and one with a corner facing me.  The signal (red) hits the boxes both the same, but the reflection, or echo (blue) is completely different making it much more difficult to hear the echo from the box with the corner facing me.

Scan for Simple Targets at First

Knowing this, it is particularly interesting to scan the room and try to find all of the boxes or objects that have nice big target surfaces.  I did this using the "sshh" sound since it was very quite room with no other interfering noises and all of the objects I was looking for were fairly close to me.  After just a few minutes of echolocating around the room, I was able to easily detect all of the boxes with nice flat surfaces pointing at me.


You can use this strategy to determine "calibration points" like walls, television screen, cupboards, refrigerator, etc.  Objects that have nice flat surfaces that you will easily be able to detect using echolocation.  This calibration will begin to help you orient yourself in a room sufficiently to understand some of the large components.  For instance, if you are in a square room, you will receive strong echo signals from four sides, and a weaker echo signal from the corner areas.

Try this out and let me know what you think!

Friday, June 1, 2012

Submarines Navigate Using "Echolocation"

The best known application of echolocation in humans is in the field of submarine navigation. Since the 1940's, submarines have used the echo of strong pulses of sound to determine where the ocean floor is and identify other obstacles like reefs, islands, continental formations or whales. The returning sounds are relayed via headphones to a specially trained technician who's job it is to interpret these sounds, and to guide the submarine and its crew safely through complete darkness.

Submarine sonar technicians are basically blind.  The water pressure at these depths  make it impossible to put windows to the outside of the submarine leaving them with only their sense of sound to detect objects. It is a bit different than echolocation in air because sound travels differently in water than in air. (more about that in another post)  Basically, it is subject to differences in water pressure as you will see in this video, but it also has it's own pressure propagation characteristics that are intriguing. (See Wikipedia article on Speed of Sound.)

Free 10-Minute Audio Lesson: Learn the Echolocation Click

Learn echolocation clicks with a free audio lesson
Learning how to click is one of the first steps to becoming an effective echoloator. This lesson provides clicking samples of a variety of different clicks and descriptions of when they might be most useful. This lesson has been used by O&M instructors all over the world.

Despite popular belief, it's easy to make your clicking quite subtle or unnoticeable even in quiet settings. There are many different clicks for different situations. I explain all of these in great detail and give examples of where, why and when they can and should be used.

Get your free lesson now:

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