Senses working overtime

The CASBliP consortium has developed a device that uses a property of the way the brain processes the inputs from the senses — sound cues are associated with spatial awareness.


Nobody could have escaped the celebrations of the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 launch this week. In July 1969, science fiction became reality and although humans haven’t walked on the moon since 1972, it changed the world — and, perhaps more importantly, how we see it — for ever. So it seems appropriate to look for science fiction-esque ideas for this week’s Futurescope and we think we’ve found something: an inkling of post-humanity.


That isn’t a term you’ll often see in The Engineer. It’s an idea that’s grown up around certain science-fiction writers and the murkier fringes of so-called ‘alternative culture’, which longs for the time when technology can be used to augment, supplement and surpass the natural abilities of the human body. It sounds far-fetched, but then internet culture sounded far-fetched 10 years ago and that grew out of very similar roots.


One good example of post-humanity can be seen with the CASBliP project, the three-year EU-funded effort to help blind people sense their environment. The CASBliP consortium has developed a device that uses a property of the way the brain processes the inputs from the senses — sound cues are associated with spatial awareness.


Using an infrared laser to measure the distances from a viewer to the objects in his or her field of view, and the distances between those objects, the system builds up a three-dimensional map, and then converts that information into sound. Working something like the echolocation used by bats or the sonar of marine mammals, it produces signals that, to the user, sound like they come from the surfaces of objects. Close to, an object will seem to give off a high-pitched signal; further away, it’ll be lower-pitched. If the object is at an angle, it changes the quality of the sound.


In this way, the system turns the sense of hearing into an analogue of vision, which blind people could use to navigate their surroundings. It isn’t the first such effort — inventions such as braille use touch as an analogue for sight and there have been intriguing experiments with systems that create a tactile map of the surroundings in real time.


Using perception tricks to make up for sense impairments represents a way that engineering can make a real difference to people’s lives. Whether it could be used to augment the senses and capabilities of able-bodied people is a matter of pure conjecture but, as the science-fiction writers say, society finds its own uses for things.



Stuart Nathan, Special Projects Editor