Monday, October 14, 2013
Five methods of environment detection for the blind
I usually write in pre-modern worlds, so I’m going to assume there are no such things as Seeing Eye dogs here—though a science fiction short story once featured a blind alien which used a human as such a service animal. If anyone remembers what the story was called and/or who the author was, please comment and let me know.
Anyway, that made me think of ways blind people in a medieval fantasy might become aware of their surroundings.
Bats and whales use echolocation, but they have suitable modifications and an environment. Water conducts sound better than air does, and bats have large ears, neither of which are likely to apply to humans. Plus, it might be difficult to have a character constantly making high-pitched noises.
Though if a blind person had sensitive enough hearing, he might be able to detect even the quietest sounds—or filter said sounds from the soup of a crowded, noisy room. The problem, though, comes when dealing with the completely inanimate. Navigating a maze or even an unfamiliar house would prove more difficult, but that’s where a different sense comes in.
Some predators make good use of this—and use structures such as whiskers or cobwebs to maximize the amount of their environment they can detect. Humans are at a distinct disadvantage in this respect. By the time you’re close enough to an intruder to touch him, you’re probably too close and have lost the element of surprise.
Though if a human did have skin (or skin-connected structures) which extended far enough, and which could be manipulated into exploring an environment at a distance, that could work.
3. Electrical fields
I like this one because it could work in almost any world—futuristic, steampunk or medieval. There’s real-life precedent for this as well; sharks sense electrical impulses via specialized organs called the ampullae of Lorenzini.
It would also be interesting to know how such a method of detection would work. Do the stronger electrical impulses produced by living creatures feel like the shock you get when you walk across a shag carpet and open a door? Or is it more like a monochromatic pointillist world where significant surges show up like Rorschach blots?
Snakes can sense the warmth given off by their prey, but it would be even more interesting to intensify this ability. The molecules of substances vibrate unless the temperature is absolute zero, in which case your character is unlikely to be doing much either, and enough vibration produces heat.
If the character is a sensitive enough thermometer, he could tell the difference between metal and wood from across a room. Or he could tell which of three identical closed doors had been used shortly before, because one handle would be just a few degrees warmer than the others.
5. Seeing through the eyes of another
The other set of eyes could belong to an animal or person devoted to that purpose—though I wouldn’t want to have the compound eyes of a fly or the multiple eyes of a spider unless my brain was able to handle that kind of input.
Alternately, the blind person might be able to look through the eyes of anyone in the immediate vicinity. That might be interesting, to see yourself from the perspective of a lover or an assassin.
Any other ways of sensing the environment?