The KSonar. Why is it great?

In the previous incarnation of this blog I wrote about the KSonar, a mobility aid for people with visual impairments. This hand held device uses ultrasonic waves similar to Sonar found on boats to detect objects within its range. It then provides an audible notification of these obstructions in a form that relays to the user the distance between the object and the device, the solidity of the object and it’s motion or lack there of.

The KSonar has not been widely adopted by users who are visually impaired as it uses an ear piece to provide this feedback. It is feared by the majority of people that this will obstruct the normal environmental noise that people who have little or no sight depend on to make decisions that assist them in making choices about navigation. This fear is justified! The loss of detection due to an ear piece blocking sound from any direction could cause a person who can not see to misjudge direction or worse, misjudge traffic.

The KSonar comes with a stereo headset that would indeed decrease the volume of external noise. In my opinion, although the sound from this supplied headset is great for differentiating the differences between sounds emanated from the KSonar, it is a poor choice. It is more important to hear external noises than getting feedback from the KSonar. For this reason, I suggest purchasing a different headset.

It is claimed that the KSonar emits sound in stereo. However I did not find that this was the case. Using one ear piece is therefore adequate. Purchasing an ear piece with silicone inserts that fit in to the outside of your ear canal is best in my experience. The ear piece I bought has great clarity and range but it can be worn loosely so that only a minimal change is made to external environmental noise.

Another reason that most people are put off using the KSonar is its learning curve. It is necessary to allot some time to learn what the small changes in output mean. I found that walking around the house and office scanning my surroundings was a great way of determining what each sound meant. When I found something that sounded different, I’d follow the sound and touch it. For example, I found that the internal partition wall sounded different to the bookshelf in this office. The window sounded different to the radiator. The carpet sounded more muffled than my dog’s bed. It took time but slowly I began to build up recognition of different objects. As you become accustom to what each surface sounds like, you become aware that there are hidden noises. For example, if scanning my shoe, I’d hear a secondary noise for the carpet to its left and right. This takes a little more time to learn, or at least, it did in my case, some may find that they catch on much more quickly!

When learning to walk with the KSonar, things felt much different. Not alone did I have to concentrate on listening to everything around me, I had to train my self to stop when something got too close. Unlike walking with a Cain, there’s no tactile, tangible or physical blocker making you immediately aware that there is something in your way. The KSonar will give you the sound but it’s up to you to learn what those sounds mean and to become practise so that the necessary alarm bells go off when you’re too close to something.

It is certainly difficult. There is no escaping that for the first while it takes a lot of concentration and commitment.

After the first learning curve, things started to get much easier. When walking outside, I found my self listening less to what each sound meant and more to the pattern of the audible waves. When the pattern changed, I listened more intently to what it was that I was approaching. When I was coming close to something that was likely to be a barrier, I switched to short range so that the device provided more definition. When walking with the cane, the change in the pattern would cause me to be a bit more careful and slow my pace thus decreasing the extent of the impact between it and the object and allowing me to continue past more efficiently. When walking with the dog, I again used the pattern as a marker for objects around me. With the guide dog, the KSonar is less a mobility aid and more of an information gathering tool. For example, when walking in a new area, I can tell if there is a grass verge on one side. Although my dog isn’t distracted all that much, I know to be aware that grass is around within easy reach so if it has just been raining, there’s going to be more of an attraction for him there to sniff so I can be on my guard. I can also use it to find traffic light poles and other useful land marks.

It’s therefore a pity that the aid is not used by more people. Sure, there is a lot to learn but it’s justified and of major benefit. Just some of the tips that I have are as follows:

  • Put the ear piece connection down the right sleeve of your coat. This way, you can easily unplug the KSonar when necessary for storage in your pocket using only one hand. This is perfect when being led by a sighted guide or a guide dog. It also keeps the cable out of the way when using a cane.
  • If using the KSonar independently, move your hand in a circular shape scanning more to the left and right as you do so. This will scan ground level, and around head level as well as catching objects on either side of you.
  • If using a cane you are restricted to only scanning left and right. However, when navigating steps, I find tilting the cane more than normal gives better differential in the feedback provided by the KSonar for finding steps before the cane does.
  • When using the KSonar with a guide dog, use a cross shape as your movement. First go from left to right then in the middle scan from ground to head level. This ensures that your dog is not scanned and saves confusion.

So, why bother with a KSonar? Here are a few of the reasons why I find it handy to have around on a day to day basis:

  • When walking in a building with wet paint, it is easy to find lift buttons. Simply scan for the sound associated with the metallic plate and reach for it. This only comes to mind as our office was painted this week.
  • When taking my guide dog for his daily walk in the park at lunch time, I like to give him some freedom. He’s been following orders for the entire morning so it’s good to let him have some time to unwind. However, I can’t let him off. It’s just not safe to do so in that area. By using the KSonar, I can put the dog on a flexi lead and follow the path. I can also scan around the area he’s sniffing around.
  • My favourite one. This always has people guessing: When in a pub, hold the KSonar just above the bar. IF the bar staff keep passing you, you’ll hear the sound as if you had just passed your hand over the sensor. Wait for the sound and call out in their direction. I don’t know how many times that has worked for me!
  • Some of my day to day job involves visiting other buildings and other offices. It’s important to be as independent as possible so when I go to an office, I discretely use the KSonar to pinpoint the desk in the room so I can give my dog the required commands to find it in that general direction. It’s also great for finding chairs in meeting rooms.
  • On Busses and trains, it’s incredibly handy for finding free seats.
  • For disposing of rubbish in parks etc, it’s really handy for finding bins then the exact opening. Therefore limiting the amount of contact you need to make with the bin. That’s great when some bins are disgusting!
  • In hotel rooms, I’m sure you’ve spent time getting to know what’s around you. What’s mounted on walls, what’s in the bathroom etc. The KSonar makes that much easier.

There are more advantages that I could go into but you get what I mean.

The KSonar cost me about €600. Although that’s expensive, in my opinion, it was worth it.

2 Responses to The KSonar. Why is it great?

  1. Very interesting post, darragh!

    In particular the parts about the learning curve and starting to learn in a familiar environment drew my attention.

    Best regards,

    Peter Meijer

    Seeing with Sound – The vOICe