Vol. 36 No. 4, October 1999

Auditory perception of walls via spectral variations in the ambient sound field

Daniel H. Ashmead, PhD and Robert S. Wall, PhD

Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences, Vanderbilt Bill Wilkerson Center for Otolaryngology and Communication Sciences, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Nashville, TN 37232-8700

Abstract — Individuals with visual disabilities often use their hearing in order to maintain a line of travel parallel to walls, such as when walking down a hallway or along the side of a building. Previous studies established that this ability depends on the sense of hearing, but the specific acoustic information has not been investigated. The present paper describes a model of how sound pressure builds up within a meter or so in front of a wall, particularly in the low frequency end of the sound spectrum. This buildup of sound pressure is based on ambient or "background" sound, not self-produced sound such as footsteps. The model leads to a prediction that walls are detected by means of a spectral shift toward low frequencies. This prediction was tested in three experiments, in which sighted adults listened for such spectral shifts. In each experiment, a threshold value was obtained corresponding to the farthest simulated distance from a wall that could be detected. Threshold values were in good agreement with previous observations of the distance at which pedestrians can utilize acoustic information from walls. There was no evidence that simulated listener motion enhanced perception of walls. The model underlying these experiments implies that the term echolocation carries inappropriate connotations about the auditory processes that are involved in walking along walls. It is suggested that a more apt description is that pedestrians listen for spatial variations in the structure of the ambient sound field.

Key words: auditory perception, blindness, orientation and mobility, profile analysis, psychoacoustics, space perception, spatial hearing, visual impairment.

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