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Microsoft soundscapes help guide the blind through cities

Submitted by kevin ebi on April 1, 2015

Even for people with good vision, navigating cities can be a bewildering experience. For people who are blind, the task can be absolutely terrifying. A new project, featuring work from Council Lead Partner Microsoft, hopes to change that by letting their ears be their guide.

Image removed.Backers of the initiative, part of Cities Unlocked, point out that in the United Kingdom alone nearly 200,000 blind people rarely leave their homes. Without visual clues, cities are dark and confusing places. Venturing out is more trouble than it’s worth. When confusion and the feeling of isolation combine, the result is extreme anxiety.

Soundscapes bring cities to life
The solution is roughly the audio equivalent of the digital visors that display information over a person’s field of view. As a blind person travels through a city, a combination of audio cues and turn-by-turn directions are delivered through a Bluetooth headset. The headset is paired with an app on their smartphone, which they use to control the service.

The audio cues are directional and designed to help the person walk in the right direction. Think of it as 3D audio. The system adjusts the audio balance between the left and right ears so that the pinging sound always appears to be coming from the user’s destination. If the person goes off course, the ping is replaced with a whoosh sound. A person who tested the system while wearing blinders in London said these audio cues were “surprisingly comforting.”

The other part of the audio, however, allows the blind user to experience a city just as someone who can see might. As the wearer approaches a cash machine, a voice may tell them, “There’s an ATM on your left, 5 meters away.” If they’re interested, an audio feed may also describe the architectural history of buildings they are walking past. A voice can also warn them about obstacles, such as low branches or cars that are parked in their path.

This descriptive audio could also help the blind shop in a store, guiding them to the section of the store they are interested in and describing the products available.

Based on real life experiences
Microsoft worked with Guide Dogs, The Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis and Future Cities Catapult to understand the challenges blind people face. Those lessons helped the partners to develop a solution that truly met their unique needs.

Part of the research involved monitoring the brain activity of blind people as they tried to get around the city to determine their biggest sources of frustration. After plotting those points of frustration on a map, they discovered that transit centers are one of the biggest problem areas.

There are a number of reasons why. First, for the blind the signage can be confusing, incomplete and not obviously located. Making matters worse, transit centers are typically very busy places. Trying to find your way through a large crowd in a place that is already confusing takes tremendous confidence -- confidence many blind people don’t have.

To help them build that confidence, the system not only guides them to the transit station, it helps guide them through it. It lets them know where they can sit and wait, and gives them several minutes warning to get up and gather their things before their ride arrives.

Educating those who can see
While the big breakthrough is for those who can’t see, the partnership is also working to educate those who can. Little things, like a sudden change in the texture of the pavement, can confuse the blind. The partners are sharing their research -- including videos of blind people trying to navigate cities -- with city planners.

In addition to raising awareness about pavement texture and curbs, cities may decide to offer their own help through the app. A blind person may be able to tap a button to summon someone who can personally guide them or stay with them until they feel comfortable.

The service is still in development and it may be another few years before it’s ready for widespread use. Even so, it’s already helping open the eyes of planners and managers so they can take steps to make their cities more welcoming to the blind.


Kevin Ebi is a staff writer and social media coordinator for the Council. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.

More resources …
Cisco challenge leads to a "smart stick" for the blind
4 fascinating ways ICT promotes healthier populations
School Uses Accessible Software to Help Student Who Is Blind Reach the Top of Her Class