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3D audio maps out the world in new app for visually impaired users

Soundscapes and audio landmarks are two of the features in an innovative new navigation app designed for users with sight loss.

Designed by Microsoft, the Soundscape app maps out locations using 3D audio to help users build a picture of their surroundings, allowing them to locate specific places, such as restaurants, shops and specific addresses.

The 3D element provides various beneficial features, such as calling out points of interest and street names as the user passes them, either on foot or on public transport. Users are advised to wear a pair of stereo headphones when using the app.

A key feature of Soundscape is the ‘audio beacons’ that users can set at specific points. For example, a user might choose a café or known address to set as a beacon. A ‘3D audio cue’ generated by the app then tells users where this beacon is as they move around, with the sound appearing to come from the direction of the beacon. This helps the user create a mental picture of their surroundings and allows them to navigate towards familiar locations.

Speaking to e-Access Bulletin, Jarnail Chudge, an Innovation Architect at Microsoft, said that the app differs from traditional “turn-by-turn navigation” technologies. He said: “Soundscape is different, in that it helps people build a mental appreciation of their environment, empowering their own wayfinding choices. It’s about giving a person choice rather than prescribing the direction they take.”

Microsoft point out that Soundscape is not meant to act as a sole form of navigation and is intended to complement other methods, such as a guide dog and cane. Chudge said: “People still need to develop the skills to travel around safely and take part in mobility training. Our work with Guide Dogs and other partners shows that when using Soundscape, people still make key decisions, such as when to cross a road, what route to take and where they want to travel.”

The app includes other more traditional mapping features, such as the ‘Around me’ and ‘Ahead of me’ functions, which describe points of interest surrounding and in front of where the app is being used.

Microsoft worked with Guide Dogs UK and LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired to help develop the app and ensure that it was tested by visually impaired users.

Read more about the Soundscape app at the Microsoft Research website.


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