Microsoft launches navigation app, Soundscape in partnership with Vision Australia

Today, Microsoft Australia and Vision Australia announced the availability of Soundscape, a new application that empowers people who are blind or have low vision to explore the world around them through a 3D audio experience.

Soundscape uses 3D audio and location awareness to provide users with information about their surroundings to help build a mental map of what’s around them. By setting an audio beacon on a chosen destination or a familiar landmark, a user will always be able to keep track of where that location is as they make their way there. The app will also call out roads, intersections, and landmarks as a user walks past.

By wearing a stereo headset plus Soundscape, people who are blind or have low vision can explore the outdoor world with greater independence. With the 3D audio technology, the sounds are perceived as coming from the direction of the point of interest, so the user can build an image of what’s around from the sounds in the environment and the information coming from the Soundscape app.

Unlike traditional navigation apps that provide turn by turn directions, Soundscape helps users build an appreciation of the space as they move through it, empowering them to make their own navigational choices while at the same time enhancing their overall experience.

Used in combination with traditional mobility aids, like canes and dogs, a person with low or no vision can get from A to B and gain an appreciation of their surroundings on the journey – particularly if the environment is an unfamiliar one.

 “Soundscape gives me confidence in an outside environment, by helping me understand what’s around me – whether it’s a restaurant, café, railway station, walking bike/track, park, business or even a street name. It allows me to build a mental map of my neighbourhood,” said David Woodbridge, Access Technology Advisor, Vision Australia.

“Rather than dictate what I should do, it allows me to make my own decisions based on the information it is providing, meaning I am always in control. For me, it really is about feeling stress free when I’m out and about. The app is easy to use and I have my own personal markers set for different locations. My local coffee shop is always a priority and the ‘coffee shop’ marker on Soundscape gets a lot of use.”

The intention of Soundscape is not to replace aids such as a dog guide or cane, but to enable a user to more naturally and intuitively connect with their environment without disrupting their ability to attend to other tasks, activities, or interactions with other people. 

To this end, the product development group in Microsoft’s Artificial Intelligence and Research (AI&R) team have been working directly with Vision Australia’s Orientation and Mobility team for the last six months to have them test and integrate the use of Soundscape in their work with clients.

“We’ve partnered with Vision Australia as they understand the challenges that people who are blind or have low vision face every day. We know that Vision Australia clients have seen huge benefits from the use of other Microsoft technologies and have contributed to making our tools more accessible”, Steven Worrall, Managing Director, Microsoft said.

“It’s our mission to continue to partner with organisations like Vision Australia to make technology more accessible to the four million Australians who live with disabilities every day and specifically to the 384,000 Australians who are blind or have no vision.”

There are more than one billion people with disabilities worldwide. Yet around the world, only one in 10 people with disabilities have access to assistive technologies and products. 

Acessibility and inclusion is at the heart of who we are and everything we create at Microsoft. I believe AI is a game changer for people with disabilities around the world, and by making the technology more widely available, we can have a bigger impact on this community,” said, Jean-Philippe Courtois, Executive Vice President and President, Microsoft Global Sales, Marketing and Operations, Microsoft.

“It’s incredible to see how an application like Soundscape enables those who have visual impairments to feel more included and connected to the world around them,” Courtois concludes.

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