Acoustic wayfinding

Acoustic wayfinding

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Acoustic wayfinding is the practice of using the auditory system
Auditory system
The auditory system is the sensory system for the sense of hearing.- Outer ear :The folds of cartilage surrounding the ear canal are called the pinna...

 to orient oneself and navigate physical space. It is commonly used by the visually impaired
Visual impairment
Visual impairment is vision loss to such a degree as to qualify as an additional support need through a significant limitation of visual capability resulting from either disease, trauma, or congenital or degenerative conditions that cannot be corrected by conventional means, such as refractive...

, allowing them to retain their mobility without relying on visual cues from their environment.


Acoustic wayfinding involves using a variety of auditory cues to create a mental map
Cognitive map
Cognitive maps are a type of mental processing composed of a series of psychological transformations by which an individual can acquire, code, store, recall, and decode information about the relative locations and attributes of phenomena in their everyday or metaphorical spatial environment.The...

 of the surrounding environment. This can include a number of techniques: navigating by sounds from the natural environment, such as pedestrian crossing signals; echolocation, or creating sound waves (by tapping a cane or making clicking noises) to determine the location and size of surrounding objects; and memorizing the unique sounds in a given space to recognize it again later. For the visually impaired, these auditory cues become the primary substitute for visual information about the direction and distance of people and objects in their environment.
However, there are a number of common obstacles to acoustic wayfinding techniques: outdoors, noisy urban environments with many different sounds can challenge an individual's ability to navigate by acoustics, while indoors, materials such as carpet or tile that mask or distort sound can also be disorienting. Among the most difficult environments to navigate for individuals who rely on acoustic wayfinding are crowded places like department stores, transit stations, and hotel lobbies, or open spaces like parking lots and parks, where distinct sound cues are lacking. This means that, in practice, individuals who navigate primarily by acoustic wayfinding must also rely on a number of other senses – including touch, smell, and residual sight – to supplement auditory cues. These different methods can be used in tandem. For example, visually impaired individuals often use a white cane
White cane
A white cane is used by many people who are blind or visually impaired, both as a mobility tool and as a courtesy to others. Not all modern white canes are designed to fulfill the same primary function, however: There are at least five varieties of this tool, each serving a slightly different...

, not only to physically locate obstacles in front of them, but also to acoustically get a sense of what those obstacles may be. By tapping the cane, they also create sound waves that help them to gauge the location and size of nearby objects.

Importance in architecture

Recently, architects have begun to address the problems faced by people who rely primarily on acoustic wayfinding to navigate urban spaces. On September 20th, 2011, the San Francisco chapter of the American Institute of Architects
American Institute of Architects
The American Institute of Architects is a professional organization for architects in the United States. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., the AIA offers education, government advocacy, community redevelopment, and public outreach to support the architecture profession and improve its public image...

organized an acoustic wayfinding walking tour, led by Christopher Downey, an architect who went blind in 2008 and has since worked to improve architectural design for the visually impaired. The purpose of the tour was to highlight the ways that visual impaired people associate sounds with particular buildings and locations, creating "sound markers" that help them find their way on the street or indoors, and to discuss implementing more unique sound markers into urban design projects.