Blind people sometimes develop the amazing ability to perceive the contours of the room they’re in based only on auditory information. Bats and dolphins use the same echolocation technique for navigating in their environment.
At EPFL, a team from the Audiovisual Communications Laboratory (LCAV), under the direction of Professor Martin Vetterli, has developed a computer algorithm that can accomplish this from a sound that’s picked up by four microphones. Their experiment is being published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences(PNAS). “Our software can build a 3D map of a simple, convex room with a precision of a few millimeters,” explains PhD student Ivan Dokmanić.
Randomly placed microphones
As incredible as it may seem, the microphones don’t need to be carefully placed. “Each microphone picks up the direct sound from the source, as well as the echoes arriving from various walls,” Dokmanić continues. “The algorithm then compares the signal from each microphone. The infinitesimal lags that appear in the signals are used to calculate not only the distance between the microphones, but also the distance from each microphone to the walls and the sound source.”
This ability to “sort out” the various echoes picked up by the microphones is in itself a first. By analyzing each echo’s signal using “Euclidean distance matrices,” the system can tell whether the echo is rebounding for the first or second time, and determine the unique “signature” of each of the walls.
The researchers tested the algorithm at EPFL using a “clean” sound source in an empty room in which they changed the position of a movable wall. Their results confirmed the validity of the approach. A second experiment carried out in a much more complex environment – an alcove in the Lausanne Cathedral – gave good partial results. New tests using more microphones are very likely to yield improved results.
Read more at: Phys.org