By Rico Malvar, Chief Scientist and Distinguished Engineer, Microsoft
Advancements in technology can play a deep and meaningful role in the independent mobility of people who are blind or have low vision. That is why we created Microsoft Soundscape, a research project available today for free on iOS and iPhone in the US and UK.
Soundscape empowers more people to explore the world around them through a 3D audio experience. The Soundscape app enriches your perception of surroundings as you walk, helping you get where you want to go. Rushing between classes, going for coffee with a friend or touring a new city with the family are all common experiences that could be more rewarding and cause less anxiety for nearly 300 million people with sight loss worldwide. We can’t wait to hear from the community about your experiences with Soundscape as we continue to learn and make improvements.
“Obstacle avoidance is not the problem, we have a dog, a cane and our blindness skills for that,” said Erin Lauridsen, Access Technology Director, LightHouse for the Blind in San Francisco. “The gap is knowing where things are and being able to decide what’s of interest.”
Microsoft’s technology enables you to set audio beacons at familiar destinations and landmarks, and then use 3D audio cues to improve your ambient awareness as you make your way to the destination. By simply connecting a stereo headset, you can explore the outdoor world with more independence. With 3D audio, the sounds are perceived as coming from the point of interest, so the user can build a mental image of what’s around from the acoustic environment – the soundscape – of sounds in the environment and those from the Soundscape app.
Soundscape has several useful features, including the ability to run in the background while you use other programs, and was designed to be used in addition to other navigation support methods such as guide dogs and canes. As you walk, Soundscape will help you stay aware of where you are by calling out roads and landmarks as you pass them. If at any point you’re unsure of where you are or which road to choose, hold the phone flat in your hand with the top edge facing the direction of interest and use the buttons at the bottom of the screen to locate nearby roads, orientate to familiar landmarks, and explore the places ahead of you.
The project began in 2014 when Amos Miller, a Microsoft product strategist and researcher in the MSR Enable team, felt that independent mobility for visually impaired people could be greatly improved with technology. He was born with a genetic eye disease that later led to complete sight loss. Inspired by fatherhood, he sought to understand how the sense of independence, presence and empowerment might be heightened and thereby motivate many more people who are blind or have low vision to leave their home on their own.
“When someone can relate to their environment in a natural and intuitive way, it changes their relationship with their world,” said Miller. “It is that relationship that brings about a sense of meaning and connection, which is so important in life.”
To explore the problem, he brought together Microsoft researchers with experts from Guide Dogs UK, who help thousands of people who are blind or have low vision by providing them with specially trained dogs and mobility training. With growing support, the Soundscape research project was established, and we began to reimagine how technology could enhance independence and mobility.
Chris Yates, a Lead Mobility Instructor at Guide Dogs UK, worked closely with the team on implementing Soundscape. Yates noted: “While cities have a long way to go to become truly accessible for everyone, technology helps play a significant role for people with disabilities. Soundscape helps add more insight and information in addition to traditional mobility resources, like guide dogs and walking canes, that can help people gain confidence in how they get around their city.”
For each step in the development process, gaining feedback has helped bring the research project to life. In San Francisco, we began working with LightHouse for the Blind, a nonprofit that promotes independence, equality and self-reliance of people who are blind or have low vision.
“At LightHouse, we know that accessible technology can play a huge role in helping more people be productive, gain confidence and become self-reliant,” said Lauridsen. “Soundscape addresses a crucial need – a tool for efficiently exploring your surroundings. That is a game-changer.”
At Microsoft, we are on a journey to empower people with disabilities. We are focused on learning from our customers, partners and the community to continually improve our products and services. Your input and commitment to help us think about the role technology can play to empower more people has been an amazing and rewarding experience.
As we make Soundscape available to the public, we want to hear from our customers about your experiences. Visit the Soundscape project page for more information, share feedback through the accessibility UserVoice and contact the Disability Answer Desk for support.