Navigation and perception of spatial layout in virtual echo-acoustic space.
Dodsworth C., Norman LJ., Thaler L.
Successful navigation involves finding the way, planning routes, and avoiding collisions. Whilst previous research has shown that people can navigate using non-visual cues, it is not clear to what degree learned non-visual navigational abilities generalise to 'new' environments. Furthermore, the ability to successfully avoid collisions has not been investigated separately from the ability to perceive spatial layout or to orient oneself in space. Here, we address these important questions using a virtual echolocation paradigm in sighted people. Fourteen sighted blindfolded participants completed 20 virtual navigation training sessions over the course of 10 weeks. In separate sessions, before and after training, we also tested their ability to perceive the spatial layout of virtual echo-acoustic space. Furthermore, three blind echolocation experts completed the tasks without training, thus validating our virtual echo-acoustic paradigm. We found that over the course of 10 weeks sighted people became better at navigating, i.e. they reduced collisions and time needed to complete the route, and increased success rates. This also generalised to 'new' (i.e. untrained) virtual spaces. In addition, after training, their ability to judge spatial layout was better than before training. The data suggest that participants acquired a 'true' sensory driven navigational ability using echo-acoustics. In addition, we show that people not only developed navigational skills related to avoidance of collisions and finding safe passage, but also processes related to spatial perception and orienting. In sum, our results provide strong support for the idea that navigation is a skill which people can achieve via various modalities, here: echolocation.