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TED2015

Daniel Kish: How I use sonar to navigate the world

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Views 1,173,395

Daniel Kish has been blind since he was 13 months old, but has learned to "see" using a form of echolocation. He clicks his tongue and sends out flashes of sound that bounce off surfaces in the environment and return to him, helping him to construct an understanding of the space around him. In a rousing talk, Kish shows how this works -- and asks us all to let go of our fear of the dark unknown.

- Perceptual navigation specialist
Daniel Kish expands the perceptual toolbox of both blind and sighted humans by teaching echolocation -- the ability to observe our surroundings via sound. Full bio

(Clicking)
00:12
I was born with bilateral retinoblastoma,
00:19
retinal cancer.
00:24
My right eye was removed
00:27
at seven months of age.
00:30
I was 13 months
when they removed my left eye.
00:33
The first thing I did
upon awakening from that last surgery
00:38
was to climb out of my crib
00:43
and begin wandering around
the intensive care nursery,
00:46
probably looking for the one
who did this to me.
00:51
(Laughter)
00:55
Evidently, wandering around the nursery
00:58
was not a problem for me without eyes.
01:02
The problem was getting caught.
01:05
It's impressions about blindness
01:09
that are far more threatening
01:12
to blind people than the blindness itself.
01:16
Think for a moment about
your own impressions of blindness.
01:21
Think about your reactions
when I first came onto the stage,
01:25
or the prospect of your own blindness,
01:29
or a loved one going blind.
01:33
The terror is incomprehensible
to most of us,
01:37
because blindness
01:42
is thought to epitomize ignorance
and unawareness,
01:45
hapless exposure to the ravages
of the dark unknown.
01:50
How poetic.
01:58
Fortunately for me,
my parents were not poetic.
02:01
They were pragmatic.
02:04
They understood that ignorance and fear
were but matters of the mind,
02:06
and the mind is adaptable.
02:13
They believed that I should grow up
02:17
to enjoy the same freedoms
and responsibilities as everyone else.
02:20
In their own words, I would move out --
02:25
which I did when I was 18 --
02:28
I will pay taxes --
02:31
thanks --
(Laughter) --
02:33
and they knew the difference
between love and fear.
02:37
Fear immobilizes us
in the face of challenge.
02:42
They knew that blindness
would pose a significant challenge.
02:47
I was not raised with fear.
02:50
They put my freedom first before all else,
02:53
because that is what love does.
02:57
Now, moving forward,
how do I manage today?
03:00
The world is a much larger nursery.
03:06
Fortunately, I have my trusty long cane,
03:09
longer than the canes
used by most blind people.
03:13
I call it my freedom staff.
03:16
It will keep me, for example,
03:19
from making an undignified
departure from the stage. (Laughter)
03:20
I do see that cliff edge.
03:27
They warned us earlier
that every imaginable mishap
03:30
has occurred to speakers
up here on the stage.
03:33
I don't care to set a new precedent.
03:37
But beyond that,
03:40
many of you may have heard me clicking
as I came onto the stage --
03:42
(Clicking) --
03:45
with my tongue.
03:46
Those are flashes of sound
03:48
that go out and reflect
from surfaces all around me,
03:51
just like a bat's sonar,
03:56
and return to me with patterns,
with pieces of information,
03:58
much as light does for you.
04:03
And my brain, thanks to my parents,
04:07
has been activated to form images
in my visual cortex,
04:10
which we now call the imaging system,
04:16
from those patterns of information,
much as your brain does.
04:19
I call this process flash sonar.
04:23
It is how I have learned to see
through my blindness,
04:26
to navigate my journey
04:32
through the dark unknowns
of my own challenges,
04:35
which has earned me the moniker
04:39
"the remarkable Batman."
04:43
Now, Batman I will accept.
04:47
Bats are cool. Batman is cool.
04:49
But I was not raised to think of myself
as in any way remarkable.
04:53
I have always regarded myself
much like anyone else
04:59
who navigates the dark unknowns
of their own challenges.
05:03
Is that so remarkable?
05:09
I do not use my eyes, I use my brain.
05:12
Now, someone, somewhere,
05:16
must think that's remarkable,
or I wouldn't be up here,
05:19
but let's consider this for a moment.
05:23
Everyone out there
05:27
who faces or who has ever
faced a challenge,
05:29
raise your hands.
05:34
Whoosh. Okay.
05:37
Lots of hands going up, a moment,
let me do a head count.
05:39
(Clicking)
05:42
This will take a while.
(Clicking) (Laughter)
05:45
Okay, lots of hands in the air.
05:48
Keep them up. I have an idea.
05:50
Those of you who use your brains
to navigate these challenges,
05:52
put your hands down.
05:58
Okay, anyone with your hands still up
06:02
has challenges of your own. (Laughter)
06:05
So we all face challenges,
06:10
and we all face the dark unknown,
06:12
which is endemic to most challenges,
which is what most of us fear, okay?
06:16
But we all have brains
06:20
that allow us, that activate to allow us
06:24
to navigate the journey
through these challenges. Okay?
06:29
Case in point: I came up here
06:36
and -- (Clicking) -- they wouldn't tell me
06:40
where the lectern was.
06:47
So you can't trust those TED folks.
06:50
"Find it yourself," they said.
06:54
So -- (Laughter)
06:56
And the feedback for the P.A. system
is no help at all.
07:01
So now I present to you a challenge.
07:04
So if you'd all close your eyes
for just a moment, okay?
07:07
And you're going to learn
a bit of flash sonar.
07:11
I'm going to make a sound.
07:15
I'm going to hold this panel in front
of me, but I'm not going to move it.
07:17
Just listen to the sound for a moment.
07:20
Shhhhhhhhhh.
07:25
Okay, nothing very interesting.
07:31
Now, listen to what happens
to that same exact sound
07:33
when I move the panel.
07:36
Shhhhhhhhhhh.
(Pitch getting higher and lower)
07:39
You do not know the power
of the dark side.
07:50
(Laughter)
07:53
I couldn't resist.
07:55
Okay, now keep your eyes closed
07:59
because, did you hear the difference?
08:02
Okay. Now, let's be sure.
08:04
For your challenge,
08:07
you tell me, just say "now"
when you hear the panel start to move.
08:09
Okay? We'll relax into this.
08:14
Shhhhhhh.
08:20
Audience: Now.
Daniel Kish: Good. Excellent.
08:23
Open your eyes.
08:25
All right. So just a few centimeters,
08:27
you would notice the difference.
08:31
You've experienced sonar.
08:34
You'd all make great blind people.
(Laughter)
08:37
Let's have a look at what can happen
08:40
when this activation process
08:43
is given some time and attention.
08:46
(Video) Juan Ruiz: It's like
you guys can see with your eyes
08:51
and we can see with our ears.
08:54
Brian Bushway: It's not a matter
of enjoying it more or less,
08:57
it's about enjoying it differently.
09:00
Shawn Marsolais: It goes across.
DK: Yeah.
09:03
SM: And then it's gradually
coming back down again.
09:06
DK: Yes!
SM: That's amazing.
09:10
I can, like, see the car. Holy mother!
09:11
J. Louchart: I love being blind.
09:21
If I had the opportunity, honestly,
I wouldn't go back to being sighted.
09:24
JR: The bigger the goal,
the more obstacles you'll face,
09:27
and on the other side of that goal
09:31
is victory.
09:33
[In Italian]
09:35
(Applause)
09:40
DK: Now, do these people look terrified?
09:50
Not so much.
09:54
We have delivered activation training
09:56
to tens of thousands of blind
and sighted people from all backgrounds
09:58
in nearly 40 countries.
10:02
When blind people learn to see,
10:04
sighted people seem inspired
10:09
to want to learn to see their way
better, more clearly, with less fear,
10:12
because this exemplifies
the immense capacity within us all
10:18
to navigate any type of challenge,
through any form of darkness,
10:24
to discoveries unimagined
10:31
when we are activated.
10:34
I wish you all a most activating journey.
10:39
Thank you very much.
10:45
(Applause)
10:47
Chris Anderson: Daniel, my friend.
10:55
As I know you can see, it's
a spectacular standing ovation at TED.
10:58
Thank you for an extraordinary talk.
11:03
Just one more question about your world,
your inner world that you construct.
11:06
We think that we have things in our world
that you as a blind person don't have,
11:11
but what's your world like?
11:17
What do you have that we don't have?
11:18
DK: Three hundred and sixty-degree view,
11:21
so my sonar works about as well
behind me as it does in front of me.
11:24
It works around corners.
11:28
It works through surfaces.
11:30
Generally, it's kind of a fuzzy
three-dimensional geometry.
11:34
One of my students, who has now
become an instructor,
11:39
when he lost his vision,
after a few months
11:43
he was sitting in his three story house
11:46
and he realized that he could hear
everything going on throughout the house:
11:48
conversations, people in the kitchen,
people in the bathroom,
11:52
several floors away, several walls away.
11:56
He said it was something
like having x-ray vision.
11:59
CA: What do you picture
that you're in right now?
12:02
How do you picture this theater?
12:06
DK: Lots of loudspeakers, quite frankly.
12:09
It's interesting.
When people make a sound,
12:16
when they laugh, when they fidget,
when they take a drink or blow their nose
12:20
or whatever, I hear everything.
12:25
I hear every little movement
that every single person makes.
12:28
None of it really escapes my attention,
12:31
and then, from a sonar perspective,
12:34
the size of the room, the curvature
of the audience around the stage,
12:36
it's the height of the room.
12:42
Like I say, it's all that kind
of three-dimensional surface geometry
12:45
all around me.
12:49
CA: Well, Daniel, you have done
a spectacular job
12:50
of helping us all see the world
in a different way.
12:52
Thanks so much for that, truly.
DK: Thank you.
12:55
(Applause)
12:57

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About the speaker:

Daniel Kish - Perceptual navigation specialist
Daniel Kish expands the perceptual toolbox of both blind and sighted humans by teaching echolocation -- the ability to observe our surroundings via sound.

Why you should listen

When he was 13 months old, Daniel Kish lost both eyes to retinal cancer. Driven by fearless curiosity, he taught himself to navigate by clicking his tongue and listening for echoes -- a method science calls echolocation, and that Kish calls FlashSonar.

In 2000, Kish founded World Access for the Blind as a platform to teach FlashSonar, along with other methods that the blind can use to “see” and that the sighted can use to expand their awareness. Kish and many researchers believe that echolocation produces images similar to sight, and allows the visually impaired to transcend the limited expectations of society. 

More profile about the speaker
Daniel Kish | Speaker | TED.com