Post by Kevin Peesker, President of Microsoft Canada
As the next step on the journey to enabling a more accessible Canada for all, Microsoft Canada announced the availability of Soundscape, an app that empowers people with low or no vision to explore the world around them through a 3D audio experience. Soundscape is free on iOS and iPhone in both English and French.
To ensure Soundscape addresses challenges that Canadians who are blind or have low vision face every day, Microsoft worked closely with the CNIB Foundation and Vision Loss Rehabilitation Canada (VLRC) during beta testing. VLRC have been using Soundscape directly with their clients for five months and providing feedback on their growing confidence and independence.
“Technology is a game changer for people with sight loss and exciting apps, like Soundscape, are helping to transform communities into beacons of accessibility and inclusion where people can live, work and play without barriers,” said Angela Bonfanti, Vice President, CNIB Foundation. “Soundscape will help empower people who are blind or partially sighted to independently navigate the world around them with confidence, and we’re thrilled that it’s finally available in Canada.”
Unlike traditional navigation apps that provide turn by turn directions, Soundscape uses 3D audio – meaning the sounds are perceived as coming from the direction of the point of interest – and location awareness to provide users with information to help build a mental map of their surroundings and empower them to make their own navigational choices, thereby providing greater independence.
By setting an audio beacon on a chosen destination or a familiar landmark, a user can use Soundscape to keep track of that location as they move outdoors on foot or in a vehicle. Used in combination with traditional mobility aides, like canes and dogs, a person with low or no vision can move from place to place and gain an appreciation of their surroundings – particularly in an unfamiliar environment. The app also calls out roads, intersections and landmarks as the user passes, aiding in discoverability. Additionally, Soundscape allows you to mark anything you care about, for example, you can mark specific places, addresses, your current location right through to entrances to buildings or to parks, push-to-walk buttons, pedestrian crossings or bridges, bus stops or even your dog’s favorite tree! In this way, Soundscape helps the unfamiliar become more familiar, and enriches your experience of your surroundings.
“Vision Loss Rehabilitation Canada is proud to have worked in consultation with Microsoft in bringing the Soundscape app to Canada”, said Jennifer Urosevic, Vice President Healthcare Operations, Vision Loss Rehabilitation Canada. “Our certified VLRC Specialists follow global standards in providing vision loss rehabilitation therapy to restore key daily living skills. Soundscape will support our work through exciting technology that delivers a new level of awareness of a person’s surroundings – thereby increasing mobility, safety and independence for our clients across the country.”
Building Accessible Cities with Technology
The City of Brampton is working closely with Microsoft Canada to transform experiences for residents and visitors, piloting the Soundscape app.
“Creating a truly accessible city for everyone is a major priority for the City of Brampton and we believe technology will play a big role in helping us achieve our goals,” said Joseph Pittari, Interim Chief Administrative Officer, City of Brampton. “Soundscape will help add more insight and information, which will help people of all abilities gain confidence and get more from their experiences in Brampton. We hope all local governments pursue similar initiatives to make their cities more inclusive and accessible for everyone.”
Inclusive Design Is Part Of Microsoft’s DNA
Canada is the fourth market globally to launch Soundscape after the U.S., U.K. and Australia and the first to launch in two languages – English and French. Soundscape uses a combination of mapping data from Open Street Map (www.openstreetmap.org) which is a rich community generated mapping platform, and Bing Maps. Soundscape provides information about your surroundings with synthesized binaural sound, creating the effect of a 3D sound stage all around you so that the call-outs you hear come from where they actually are in relation to you. It has been designed to work with standard stereo headphones, headsets, ear-buds, audio-glasses and so on. Soundscape uses Azure to manage the data it provides and requires no user identification or account to use it, therefore no user identifiable data is captured.
The Soundscape project was started in 2014 by Amos Miller, a Microsoft product strategist and researcher on the MSR NExT Enable team, who lost his eye sight as the result of a genetic eye disease. Miller sought to improve independent mobility for blind and low-sighted people with technology.
“Accessibility and inclusion is at the heart of who we are at Microsoft. I believe that technology has the potential to level the playing field for the more than 5 million Canadians living with disabilities,” said Kevin Peesker, President, Microsoft Canada. “We are working with organizations like CNIB and the City of Brampton to help the 500,000 Canadians living with low or no vision gain independence in all parts of their lives to feel more included and connected to the world around them.
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. Microsoft created Soundscape to enable a more natural and intuitive connection between blind and low vision users and their environments without disrupting their ability to attend to other tasks, activities, or interactions with other people. Microsoft also offers assistive technologies built in to Office 365, Windows, and more, to empower low and no vision users to live and work more independently.
As Microsoft makes Soundscape available to the public, we want to hear from our customers about their experiences. Visit the Soundscape project page for more information, share feedback through the accessibility UserVoice and contact the Disability Answer Desk for support.