Ultrasonic Vision (2013) is an interactive project consisting of a pair of goggles that allow users to navigate through space with the help of sonar technology. By replacing vision with tactile feedback, I investigate how perception of space can be felt rather than beheld.
With the help of ultrasonic sensors, the goggles emit sound signals that bounce back to its sensors in order to calculate distance. The distance is then translated into vibrations on the forehead with varying intensity. The closer the user is to an object, the more prominent the feedback becomes. The goggles make the user blind in the sense that it is not possible to see through them. With an array of ultrasonic sensors mounted on the goggles, with one vibration motor for each one of them, they create a sensation of a ‘panoramic view’ acting onto the user in real time.
People who have tried my ultrasonic goggles described their experience if they were ‘extending their presence’ in the room. The space crawls smaller as they feel the walls physically on their foreheads. Likewise when the user has no obstacle in front of them, they feel nothing, and start to worry about where they are.
Ultrasonic Vision has been described to be an alienating experience, and one would recognize why explaining to a starfish why the discovery of central perspective is important is completely foolish. Jean-Jacques Rousseau writes quite memorably about the ignorance of the seeing in his book Émile, or On Education in 1763 – a time when electricity could not guarantee us vision in the night:
We are not masters of the use of all our senses equally. There is one of them – that is, touch – whose activity is never suspended. It has been spread by nature over the entire surface of our body as a continual guard to warn us of all that damages it. It is also the one of which, willy-nilly, we acquire the earliest experience due to this continual exercise and to which, consequently, and we have less need to give a special culture. However, we observe that the blind have a surer and keener touch than we do; because, their touch not being guided by sight, they are forced to learn to draw solely from the former sense the judgments that the latter furnishes us. Why, then, are we not given practice at walking as the blind do in darkness, to know the bodies may happen to come upon, to judge the objects that surround us – in a word, to do at night with light all that they do by day without eyes? As long as the sun shines, we have the advantage over them; in the dark, they are in their turn our guides. We are blind half of our lives, with the difference that the truly blind always know how to conduct them selves, while we dare not to take a step in the heart of the night. We have lights I will be told. What? Always machines; who promises you that they will follow you everywhere in case of need? Is it not a hundred times better to have eyes in the tips of ones fingers than in a candle maker’s shop?
Are you enclosed in a building in the midst of darkness? Clap your hands: you will perceive by the resonance of the place whether the area is large or small, whether you are in the middle or in a corner. At half a foot from a wall the air, circulating less than it does in the open air, brings a different sensation to your face. Stay immobile, and turn successively in every direction. If there is an open door, a light draft will indicate it to you. If you are in a boat you will know by the way air strikes your face whether the river’s current is carrying you along slow or fast. These observations and countless others like them can be made only at night; they escape us in daylight, however much attention we might want to give them. Here, meanwhile, we do not even use our fingers, our hands, or a cane. How much ocular knowledge can be acquired by touch, even without touching anything at all? *
Evolution never took us far enough to see in the dark. Technologically speaking, we have overshadowed our fear of losing vision in the dark by lighting up our surroundings with torches and streetlights so that our ability of touch becomes deprecated. The immediate reaction from people of have tried on these goggles seems to say that it can be a great aid for the blind. The goggles can certainly be looked upon as a tool. And in fact, I would be quite happy to adapt the notion of tool making as an essential process of my work. To create a tool that mimics the way the world is perceived by a bat is one way to open up for a new pattern experience. To become the other, in this sense, is to hint at the aesthetic feeling belonging to an echolocation-utilizing animal like the dolphin. The irony here is that when showing Ultrasonic Vision at Gallery Fisk, I had the spectators wear the goggles while navigating through an obstacle course consisting of sculptures inspired by the artist Robert Morris. Reading minimalism has never been done from the dolphin’s point of view, I am sure. It was of great amusement that I watched the spectator test subjects, blinded by my goggles, seemed to gravitate to the walls and objects, feeling the comforting vibrations from their surroundings onto their foreheads. Like the philosopher, echoing himself in thoughts, finding comfort and location based on objects he can’t see, soon works his way out of the labyrinth.
*Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1763), Emilé or On Education, Dartmouth College Press of New England (2010), p. 68
Egil Paulsen works with new media art as well as drawing, digital painting and illustration.
Egil graduated from Bergen National Academy of the Arts in 2014 where he was enrolled under the Department of Fine Art.
As a graduated bachelor in computer science with a genuine interest in subjects such as HCI, he is occasionally teaches color perception and Universal Design at Oslo University College. Egil also works freelance within visualization and system development.