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David Woodbridge

Smart Soundscape app rings all the right bells for blind or low vision users

As someone who has lived with blindness his entire life, David Woodbridge has managed to navigate his way around on public transport over the years through trial and error.

He knows that when the bus gets to a certain cross street it’s time for him to press the button, so the bus driver will pull over at his stop. But he can’t see, so he can’t see the cross street, and nor can his dog guide, Louisa.

But now he knows when to press the button – he’s no longer reliant on the bus driver remembering or asking a fellow passenger.

The increased independence is something he values enormously.

Besides being an accomplished bus passenger, Woodbridge is the national assistive technology advisor for Vision Australia and an early adopter of Microsoft’s Soundscape app which just launched in Australia.

“Normal apps will tell you what is around you – this lets you set up markers or beacons” – David Woodbridge

In the bus example, when the app gets to the critical intersection it makes a sound that lets Woodbridge know it’s time to press the stop button.

It can also send a signal when he gets to the end of a pathway and close to a bike track that lets him know to tell Louisa to “find left.”

Soundscape has been developed by Microsoft’s artificial intelligence and research development team and is part of the company’s AI for Accessibility global initiative.

The initiative is the company’s response to the fact that there are more than a billion people with a disability worldwide – only one in ten of whom has access to assistive technology. Microsoft is committed to working on solutions to bridge the divide and partnering with organisations such as Vision Australia to reach the community at large.

Unobtrusive and effective

Soundscape is specifically designed to deliver greater outdoors spatial and location awareness to people who are blind or have low vision by unobtrusively providing them audible clues about where they are and where they are going.

Using 3D audio and GPS based location awareness a user can keep track of where they are by setting beacons or markers on say, their favourite café, or lunch spot in a park.

Soundscape can call out roads, intersections and landmarks as a user walks along. But unlike conventional map-based navigation systems, it doesn’t bark instructions at the user, just provides the equivalent of a gentle audio nudge in the right direction.

Launched in association with Vision Australia which has been testing the solution locally for six months ahead of its release, Soundscape works on an iPhone, and uses any stereo headphones the user wants. Woodbridge uses an Aftershokz device that rests on his face, letting him hear the alerts from Soundscape without interfering with his ability to hear the world around him, or hold conversations as he walks along.

“What stands out is that when you come to an intersection and Soundscape tells you where you are it will tell you that Guilder Drive is on the left in your left ear, and Green Road is on the right in your right ear. It’s almost a physical feedback,” – David Woodbridge

If the café the user likes to visit and has marked with a beacon is to their right – that’s where the signal will come from, more strongly as they get closer.

Soundscape uses 3D audio to provide users with an array of information about their surroundings, helping them build a mental map of what’s around them.

Assistive innovation

Soundscape is a form of ambient technology that helps people who are blind or have low vision map their surroundings in their mind.

Critically it’s also easy to use and has a good help section. Just as well because Woodbridge has a low threshold of tolerance; “If I can’t use it in ten minutes, then it’s too complex.”

Soundscape passed muster, though he acknowledges it’s not perfect yet.

Woodbridge would, for example, like to see an Android version of the app so it could be used on cheaper phones, further enhancing accessibility, and it’s currently got less applicability for people who are deafblind because of only limited support for braille.

But when it comes to Microsoft’s assistive technology innovation in general, and Soundscape in particular, he’s on the bus. Until it’s time to get off.