The detection of ‘virtual’ objects using echoes by humans: Spectral cues

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Some blind people use echoes to detect discrete, silent objects to support their spatial orientation/navigation, independence, safety and wellbeing. The acoustical features that people use for this are not well understood. Listening to changes in spectral shape due to the presence of an object could be important for object detection and avoidance, especially at short range, although it is currently not known whether it is possible with echolocation-related sounds. Bands of noise were convolved with recordings of binaural impulse responses of objects in an anechoic chamber to create ‘virtual objects’, which were analysed and played to sighted and blind listeners inexperienced in echolocation. The sounds were also manipulated to remove cues unrelated to spectral shape. Most listeners could accurately detect hard flat objects using changes in spectral shape. The useful spectral changes for object detection occurred above approximately 3 kHz, as with object localisation. However, energy in the sounds below 3 kHz was required to exploit changes in spectral shape for object detection, whereas energy below 3 kHz impaired object localisation. Further recordings showed that the spectral changes were diminished by room reverberation. While good high-frequency hearing is generally important for echolocation, the optimal echo-generating stimulus will probably depend on the task.

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