Monday, February 18, 2008

Human Auditory System: Echolocation Technique for the Blind is Rediscovered

Perhaps I should have entitled this post "Everything Old is New Again" instead. The Sunday Times of London (UK, center-left newspaper) ran an article recently on how blind British school children are being taught a "pioneering" technique using echoes to help them navigate - just like bats do. The article even mentions Dan Kish and the YouTube video of him riding bicycles on city streets to show that the technique works. Great stuff!

The only problem is that this technique is not new to mankind. It has been used by humans since at least the 1800s, as evidenced by historical accounts of James Holman, nicknamed the "Blind Traveler" for his use of echolocation to travel the world.

Just in case I've lost you by immediately launching into correcting a historic inaccuracy, I will explain what human echolocation is. Simply put, it is the technique of using sound bouncing off of an object (i.e. echoes) to sense where the object is. Blind people have been taught this technique for years, hence the metal tip on the end of the traditional "white cane" used by many blind people over the years to tap the ground as they walked. The technique seems to have decreased in popularity since the widespread introduction of seeing-eye dogs (Note: this is an educated guess based on my own understanding of history, so if I'm wrong, please feel free to correct me!).

Despite the errors in the article and YouTube video, I am excited that this technique is being reintroduced for the benefit of those with impaired vision.

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