A bat echolocation system, adapted for human ears, has been used allow people to locate objects in a virtual reality environment. The researchers behind the project hope that a similar system in the cockpit of fighter planes could allow pilots to track some controls using their hearing, freeing up their eyes for other tasks.

“When you drive, you can’t look at the speedometer and the road at the same time, but you can listen to the radio at the same time,” says Dean Waters, a bat expert at the University of Leeds, UK.

Humans cannot generate or hear the high frequency sound waves generated by bats. So Waters created a virtual system that sends out bat echolocation sounds and returns echoes that are slowed into the human range of hearing.

He put people wearing headphones into a room and asked them to hunt down a virtual insect, using only the echolocation sounds. “The trials were extraordinary,” Waters told New Scientist. “It’s a very intuitive process.”

Broadband call

People were better at finding their target using bat sounds than they were when trying to find a source of sound such as a stereo. That is because bat calls are particularly good for making auditory maps of space.

The calls are short, so the echo comes back sharply. They also have a broadband structure – containing information in both high and low frequencies – which allows the animals to better localise sound. Finally, bats also dynamically change their calls when approaching their target, using shorter calls when they get closer to an object.

Waters only used one type of bat call in his virtual environment, but in future experiments he plans to let people adjust the calls themselves to optimise their navigation ability.

He has not managed to interest any military organisations in his system as yet, but as a true bat aficionado, he is just happy to know what it is like to be a bat. “You can see the world through bat ears,” Waters says, “It’s quite a trip.”

The work was presented at the British Association Festival of Science in Salford, near Manchester, UK.

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