'Batman' Style: How We Can See With Sound, Too

Echolocation is second nature to animals such as bats and dolphins. Can humans also find their way using sound as a tool? i i

Echolocation is second nature to animals such as bats and dolphins. Can humans also find their way using sound as a tool? Ian Waldie/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Ian Waldie/Getty Images
Echolocation is second nature to animals such as bats and dolphins. Can humans also find their way using sound as a tool?

Echolocation is second nature to animals such as bats and dolphins. Can humans also find their way using sound as a tool?

Ian Waldie/Getty Images

Birds do it. Bats do it. Now even educated people do it. Echolocation is the process used by certain animals to identify what lies ahead of them, by emitting sounds that bounce off objects.

Now a team of researchers has created an algorithm that could give the rest of us a chance to see with sound.

Lead study author Ivan Dokmanic of the Ecole Polytechnique Federale in Switzerland says the project started with a question: "Is it possible to just produce a sound and be like Batman or just hear the shape of the room?"

Dokmanic and his team made it happen.

First, they set up a few microphones around a room. Then, "hook these microphones up to an amplifier and a computer, produce some sound, and then just calculate the shape of the room based on the echoes that you receive from the walls in the room," Dokmanic says.

So what's it good for?

Researcher Ivan Dokmanic prepares to burst a balloon in the Lausanne Cathedral in Switzerland. By measuring the echoes made by the pop, he can calculate the shape of the room. i i

Researcher Ivan Dokmanic prepares to burst a balloon in the Lausanne Cathedral in Switzerland. By measuring the echoes made by the pop, he can calculate the shape of the room. Dirk Schrader /Ivan Dokmanic hide caption

itoggle caption Dirk Schrader /Ivan Dokmanic
Researcher Ivan Dokmanic prepares to burst a balloon in the Lausanne Cathedral in Switzerland. By measuring the echoes made by the pop, he can calculate the shape of the room.

Researcher Ivan Dokmanic prepares to burst a balloon in the Lausanne Cathedral in Switzerland. By measuring the echoes made by the pop, he can calculate the shape of the room.

Dirk Schrader /Ivan Dokmanic

For starters, it could be used in architectural acoustics. Say you're building a concert hall and you know just how you want it to sound, Dokmanic says. "Just plug this into our algorithm. And then this algorithm will produce the room that produces these echoes," he says.

The technology could also be used as an aid for blind people. Dokmanic says it could "give some kind of optic feedback maybe to the user saying, 'OK, the general form of the room is like this,' or, 'There are obstacles here and there.' "

It could also be used in audio forensics. A recording that captured the sound of a crime being committed could then be used to reconstruct the room, providing evidence to investigators.

But these applications are not available just yet. Dokmanic says he and his team are in the process of raising funds to expand the technology and hope to turn it into a smartphone app.

"I hope not too long — but the realistic horizon is two years to get something that's really usable by everyone," he says.

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