kottke.org posts about Daniel Kish

A Blind Teacher Using Echolocation to Navigate the World

Echo is a fascinating and poignant short film about Daniel Kish, a blind man who uses echolocation to move about in the world and teaches others how to do the same. Using clicks, he and his students can go on hikes, ride bikes, and skateboard down the sidewalk.

If I click at a surface, it answers back. It’s like asking a question: what are you and where are you? I can get through echolocation a really rich, palpable, satisfying, 3-dimensional, fuzzy geometry.

The filmmakers worked with Kish to record the sound as a person would hear it in real life and make visualizations to help us see what Kish is hearing.

During the early production stages of the filmmakers Ben Wolin and Michael Minahan’s short documentary, “Echo,” they wanted their audience to understand what this skill truly meant. They worked closely with Daniel, a self-described audiophile, to record sound for the documentary through a special microphone that works similarly to a pair of human ears — a tool that Daniel also uses for teaching. “You record the audio like you would hear it,” Minahan told me. Because of this process, the sound design and auditory experience has a vivid, spatial quality that’s rare with a film of this scale. The gears on Daniel’s bike creak and whine with a closeness that makes it feel like we’re riding right next to him, while dogs bark, wind blows, and cars pass in the background. It’s through these rich sounds that we’re immersed in and transported to Daniel’s world.

Make some time for this short film…it’s really great.

See also The Blind Skateboarder.

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The Blind Man Who Can See

Daniel Kish had both eyes removed as an infant but uses echolocation to see the world around him with remarkable detail.

I accompanied Kish on several occasions as he cruised the busy streets of Long Beach. The outside world is an absolute cacophony. Every car, person, dog, stroller, and bicycle makes a sound. So do gusts of wind, bits of blowing garbage, and rustling leaves. Doors open and close. Change jangles. People talk. Then there are the silent obstacles — what Kish calls urban furniture: benches, traffic signs, telephone poles, postal boxes, fire hydrants, light posts, parked vehicles. Kish hears the sonic reflections from his click even in a place teeming with ambient noise. “It’s like recognizing a familiar voice in a crowd,” he says. The load upon his mind is undoubtedly immense. Yet he casually processes everything, constructing and memorizing a mental map of his route, all while maintaining an intricate conversation with me. It’s so extraordinary that it seems to border on the magical.

When we walk into a restaurant - never a simple choice with Kish, since he’s a strict vegan - he makes a much quieter click. Kish describes the images he receives as akin to a brief flick of the lights in a dark room; you get enough essential information — tables here, stairway there, support pillars here — to navigate your way through. “It becomes as ridiculous for blind people to run into a wall as it is for sighted people,” he once wrote in his FlashSonar manual. He strolls casually across the restaurant, making one or two more clicks as we approach our table, then sits down. It’s both smooth and subtle. Kish says that it is rare a sighted person even notices he’s making an unusual noise. Almost all blind people instantly do.


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