- Microsoft has released a free iOS app, Soundscape, that gives blind and visually-impaired people 3-D audio cues to help them navigate through cities.
- The app calls out roads and landmarks into a headset as the user approaches them, and the user can set "beacons" at familiar locations — such as favorite stores or restaurants — for the app to call out. The 3-D audio makes it seem like the announcements are coming from the points of interest to help the user build a better mental image and gain a greater sense of their surroundings.
- The app is intended to complement, not replace, guide dogs and canes to offer the user a richer experience.
Getting around cities can be overwhelming even for the most able-bodied people, but for visually-impaired people it can be downright frightening. It's easy for blind folks to become disoriented from the plethora of city sounds and obstacles. Some become so fearful of the dangers and stresses of getting around a city that they don't venture out of their neighborhood, or even their home. This app is intended to help them experience less anxiety while navigating cities.
Blind people often miss out on a lot of the features and benefits of living in a city, like the ability to spot new shops or restaurants. Soundscape fills in those blanks and gives spatial cues that sighted people get from seeing signs or noticing exactly where building doors are. The user still has to listen and pay attention for obstacles, but the app offers guidance for other aspects of the person's surroundings. Microsoft notes that Soundscape could be especially helpful when used in conjunction with a cane or guide dog.
The 3-D audio technology takes a user's experience to the next level, compared with other mapping apps that simply call out locations or streets. Hearing the audio cues as if they are coming from different points in front of, behind, or next to a person helps them get a deeper sense of their surroundings. It could be compared to a sighted person's richer experience with a 3-D Google map versus a traditional paper map.
This app not only provides a valuable service for the visually impaired, but it also opens up an opportunity for cities themselves. They potentially could partner with Microsoft to improve the app's map and add points of interest or information about nearby city services. This also could help raise awareness among city leaders of areas that could use improvement to be more inclusive of and accessible to visually-impaired residents and visitors.