Microsoft’s smart headsets paint pictures using sound to help the blind see

by David Chambers on 28/11/2015 posted in the Daily Chronicle

Dubbed Orientate and Look Ahead, the new features provide information about objects and sites in distance order as the wearer approaches them.

“Placing spatially situated synthetic sounds around you – both verbal and non-verbal – it creates a 3D soundscape of the world in a language you can understand”, Microsoft explained.

Guide Dogs updated its assistive technology to build smart headsets and an app meant to help the visually impaired find their way around better by using sound.

The first prototype of the technology, which was unveiled a past year, used a series of constant clicking sounds to guide wearers in the correct direction.

Microsoft said the technology is in phase two and includes a redesign that’s more “descriptive rather than prescriptive”.

The project was initially the idea of Microsoft executive Amos Miller, who is visually impaired and had previously worked for Guide Dogs, and who wanted to be able to be more active with his daughter.

Two new experiences that have been added to the software allow users to use either their voice or a physical remote to ask for and hear additional information about landmarks around them.

Additionally, an application called “CityScribe” was developed by Microsoft to allow people to tag obstacles like park benches and corners most mapping services don’t pick up.

Kate Riddle, who also trialled the technology, said using the device gave her more confidence.

According to Cities Unlocked, one participant commented: “I really liked how… it was describing the layout of the train and it was telling you where the toilets were and the buffet vehicle and the baggage rack, it told you a lot about the context… you knew that it was describing the directions in the context of where you were going”.

The technology forms part of Microsoft’s Cities Unlocked project, which is part of the government-backed Future Cities Catapult.

According to the company, 62 per cent of blind people who had tried the technology said it made them feel safer and more confident when walking outdoors.

“With continual learning from Guide Dogs, we are building a technological proof point that not only has the potential to change lives for those living with sight loss, but, by focusing on the specific challenges they face every day, we are realising the wider benefits for sighted people”, Microsoft said. It has three buttons, each of which is linked to main function – whether it be to give you a compass direction, repeat the last piece of information, tell you what’s in your immediate surroundings or further info on those surroundings.

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