Echolocation Technology that Empowers the Blind

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How one Big Idea can lead to equal opportunities for the visually impaired

By Emily Denny

Darryl Diptee used to think of himself as a “closet innovator.”

During his time as an officer for the U.S. Navy, Diptee remembers being told to “color inside the lines and innovate on your own time.” After coming to UC Berkeley in 2018 to pursue a Ph.D. in Education, Diptee found himself in an environment that required the opposite.

“If you take a seed and put it on concrete, it won’t grow; but if you put it in fertile soil, you can literally get something that creates a massive impact,” said Diptee of his transition from the military to UC Berkeley’s environment.

Within a year at UC Berkeley, he developed the Sonic Eyewear Project, a technology that enables people who are blind or visually impaired to use echolocation to better navigate their surroundings.

This idea originated during Diptee’s deployment in Baghdad. “I saw some people who lost their vision, and that’s something that sticks with you,” he said. When he returned home, he remembered listening to an NPR podcast about Daniel Kish, a blind man who is an expert in human echolocation and president of World Access for the Blind. Kish does many things that sighted people do, like climb trees, ride a bike, and hike in the forest. He also travels around the world as a public speaker, while also teaching people who are blind or visually impaired “Flashsonar,” a unique clicking sound done by the tongue that enables people to detect their surroundings.

Diptee wondered, “If Daniel Kish is doing this with his mouth, why can’t we just create a technology that can do the same?”

The Sonic Eyewear Project (SEP) is creating a technology that replicates tongue-clicking, which can be difficult to master. “Let’s lower the bar of entry and create a technology that can do the clicking for people,” said Diptee on the origin of his idea. “It’s low-hanging fruit.”

Within two months after arriving to UC Berkeley, Diptee found himself on stage pitching his idea to the campus audience during the Innovators@Cal showcase event hosted by Big Ideas. Diptee recalls the “sense of hope” the Big Ideas team gave him during his project’s initial conception, providing him with mentors and introducing him to other students who would later become apart of the Sonic Eyewear Project team.

“Big Ideas ecompasses the very essence of Berkeley. It fosters an opportunity to create positive social change, while innovating in a really unique and creative manner,” said Amanda Brief, a biotech entrepreneur and Big Ideas mentor to Diptee and his team.

Brief was most impressed by Diptee’s ability to create a technology that would “emanate and help utilize echolocation in order to empower and provide insight to blind and visually impaired people.” She was also impressed by Diptee’s ability “to reach out and involve their dream mentor, Daniel Kish, in the process.”

Diptee first connected with Kish when he decided to call a 1-800 number for World Access for the Blind to get data for his Big Ideas pitch. To Diptee’s amazement, Kish just happened to be in town and he picked up the phone. The 45-minute phone conversation that followed led to Kish giving a talk at the UC Berkeley campus, and what is now is a close friendship between Diptee and Kish.

“It’s the worldview that separates Sonic Eyewear Project technology from literally everything else that is out there,” said Diptee. “We enter the problem space, recognizing blind people as whole people–‘they are not deficient, but distinctive.’” It’s a worldview Diptee attributes to Daniel Kish’s mentorship and expertise.

Diptee described the process of finding a team at UC Berkeley as “absolutely effortless.” After just a few interactions with students who were interested in his pitch, Diptee found three UC Berkeley student collaborators: Fátima Pérez Sastre (Business Administration and Management, 2019), Jack Wallis (Mechanical Engineering, 2022), and Arnav Gulati (Physics, 2022). So far, the team has interviewed up to a hundred people who are blind or visually impaired. Their goal is to shape their SEP technology so it fits the largest number of users.

Normally people who are blind or visually impaired become dependent on assistive technologies that process the information and provides a signal to the user in the form of a vibration or audible alert. In contrast, the Sonic Eyewear Project leans heavily on people’s brains to process the raw echolocation signal. “We have removed the processor out of the technology, which empowers the user” said Diptee.

Bryson Gardner, a technology advisor and product developer for the Apple iPod and iPhone, has helped Diptee envision success in the marketplace. Gardner said he was impressed by Diptee’s “ambition to really understand what the market demands are” by interviewing scores of consumers and being “sensitive to things like style”–something Gardner explained assistive technologies often do not adequately address.

The SEP team is also envisioning ways to make its product sustainable and environmentally friendly. Big Ideas teams that enter the contest under the Hardware for Good category must complete two environmental responsibility workshops sponsored by The Lemelson Foundation. Diptee said these workshops helped his team “introduce and infuse sustainable approaches” into their product development.

“We are implementing green sustainability into SEP by using renewable plastics,” said Diptee. He also explained that the SEP team is working on a clip-on product that can be affixed to existing eyewear, thus eliminating the need to buy an additional pair.

Amanda Brief and Bryson Gardner are excited to see what the Sonic Eyewear Project comes up with next, as the team finishes their degrees at UC Berkeley. Diptee said he is looking forward to seeking out accelerator programs, funding, and mentorship as he and the SEP team further develop their prototype.

Diptee stressed the importance of creating a technology that helps Daniel Kish train as many people as possible to master Flashsonar. “The ultimate goal is to create a device that is low cost for easier economic entry,” said Diptee.

Also of high importance to Diptee is creating a technology that assists populations traditionally excluded, describing Sonic Eyewear Project’s mission as empowering people who seek the same opportunities as everyone else.

“If you enter the space believing that people who are blind or visually impaired can do everything anyone else can do, the solution set becomes that much better and bigger.