Using an auditory sensory substitution device to augment vision: evidence from eye movements
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Sensory substitution devices convert information normally associated with one sense into another sense (e.g. converting vision into sound). This is often done to compensate for an impaired sense. The present research uses a multimodal approach in which both natural vision and sound-from-vision (‘soundscapes’) are simultaneously presented. Although there is a systematic correspondence between what is seen and what is heard, we introduce a local discrepancy between the signals (the presence of a target object that is heard but not seen) that the participant is required to locate. In addition to behavioural responses, the participants’ gaze is monitored with eye-tracking. Although the target object is only presented in the auditory channel, behavioural performance is enhanced when visual information relating to the non-target background is presented. In this instance, vision may be used to generate predictions about the soundscape that enhances the ability to detect the hidden auditory object. The eye-tracking data reveal that participants look for longer in the quadrant containing the auditory target even when they subsequently judge it to be located elsewhere. As such, eye movements generated by soundscapes reveal the knowledge of the target location that does not necessarily correspond to the actual judgment made. The results provide a proof of principle that multimodal sensory substitution may be of benefit to visually impaired people with some residual vision and, in normally sighted participants, for guiding search within complex scenes.