Dolphins, along with at least 65 species of toothed whales, use the acoustic fat in their bulbous heads to translate clicks bouncing off objects in the ocean into meaningful spatial awareness. They “hear” with their jaws, which contain the same kind of fat that’s in their heads.
Marine scientist Andrew Thaler built a headset that lets you “see” the way dolphins navigate underwater: Not through your eyeballs, or by listening with your eardrums, but with faux-echolocation and bone conduction.
Humans don’t have acoustic fat-heads, but we can hear with our jaws, too, in a way—using bone-conduction headphones. We just need a little augmented help to get the echolocation thing down.
Thaler built a Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) array to demonstrate roughly how dolphins do it. He used a ranging detector found on consumer drones that can find obstacles from 12 meters away, and combined it with a pair of bone-conducting headphones, an Arduino microcontroller board, and a small digital amp to simulate dolphins’ clicking and receiving of echolocation.
Although the system use LiDAR, the user hears sonar-like pings that increase in frequency the closer an object gets, so the wearer can feel their way around with these extra-sensory pings transmitted through their skulls, Thaler explained.
It’s a bit clumsy to navigate the surface world with the headgear, but Thaler views the build and science behind it as more of a teaching process than a useful gadget. He was first inspired to build the DolphinView, the name he’s given this creation, while at Make for the Planet, a conservation maker event, held in Borneo in June.
“To be honest, probably the biggest advantage of a project like this is not really the finished device, which is mostly a quirky gee-whiz thing, but rather as a DIY-STEM tool,” Thaler told me.
“I think students will probably benefit much more from actually building the device, learning to code an Arduino, sorting out how to make it talk to a LiDAR unit, and building audio and charging circuits to make it all work than they will from wearing dolphin SONAR glasses,” he added.