Echo Location Part 1: Batman in Training

I love creating systems which break new ground. Lucky for me, an amazing sensory system for navigating as a blind person already exists. It's essentially what bats do, a kind of echo location, mastered by the guru, Daniel Kish. Flash Sonar is the name Daniel coined, in which you make sharp clicks with your tongue and listen to how the sound echoes off objects to figure out their size, shape, and distance. Most blind people have learned to do this to some degree, but it’s passive and not developed with a conscious process. Daniel, blind himself from a year-old takes this technique to a stunning new level.

Daniel recently flew out to my HQ in Colorado for a few days to help me improve my bat skills. We kicked off with a simple exercise of Daniel holding plates up to my left or right and me trying to identify which side. Then we walked around the neighborhood investigating the different sounds like parked cars, mailboxes, houses, trees and bushes. Daniel is also an expert teacher, and sped up the learning process with a series of questions about each object to help me form images in my mind. He'd ask, "Describe how that sounds... How does it sound different from the tree you just heard?" I'd answer with, "It somehow sounds softer than the tree, and not as tall. Maybe it's a shrub?" Afterwards I'd reach out to feel it and confirm with my hands.

We then tested my skills in the park by trying to identify trash cans, water fountains, picnic benches, and rocks, all things blind people would like to be aware of during their average day. "Sounds like a wall of some kind over there," I'd say, and Daniel would reply, "Let's go investigate and find out." I wish I'd known Flash Sonar a few months ago when I was walking through the airport and slammed my forehead into an overhanging metal beam. I hit the deck with blood pouring down my face and into my eyes. I still have a big scar and worst of all, I lost my latte. So it was especially gratifying when, by the end of the day, I was finding metal poles in a pavilion and even locating thin metal sign posts. It all took immense concentration, but the good news is that it's fully possible, and only gets better with practice.

Check out the video blog of our training together.

Echo Location: Part 1 from Erik Weihenmayer on Vimeo.

Also, check out this video clip of Daniel's protégé, also blind, riding his bike through a maze and setting a new world record.

In a couple days, we'll be posting Part 2 of our training when I learned to do something I hadn't done since I went blind 30 years ago. Stay tuned, and I hope you use this to set your own ambitious, and slightly scary, stretch goals for the new year.