Narrator: Your friend just invited you to dinner at a new restaurant downtown. But to get there, you’ll need to walk to the bus stop, take the Number 8 to the train station, and ride the train into the city Easy enough, right?
Narrator: Now imagine making that trip without being able to see.
Narrator: It’s a challenge 246 million people visually impaired people face every day.
Narrator: Even with expert mobility skills and the use of a guide dog or cane, travel can be stressful for people with blindness. It takes hours of practice to confidently learn a path, and even a familiar route can yield difficult or unexpected obstacles — like silent cyclists, disruptive construction, and delayed buses.
Narrator: In the United States and United Kingdom, about 65 percent of people with blindness are out of work. Mobility and independence remain some of the biggest challenges for people with visual impairment. It’s time for technology to help change that.
Narrator: Microsoft has teamed up with the charity Guide Dogs U.K. and the urban design agency Future Cities Catapult to find a way for people with sight loss to more fully experience their communities.
The team is developing technology that uses a sensor-boosted physical environment and a rich 3-D soundscape with verbal cues to help people travel more confidently, independently, and even more enjoyably. There are three main components to this new experience:
First, you’ll need a phone to talk to indoor and outdoor sensors on your journey. Your phone can be adjusted for one-handed navigation and swiping.
Next, you’ll need a pair of bone-conducting headphones to transmit sounds and verbal cues through your bones and directly into your inner ear. The headphones rest against the sides of your head, leaving your ears free to listen for environmental noise or have a conversation.
Last, you will choose to travel a “boosted route” through a city, or a route with plentiful WiFi and lots of Bluetooth beacons to send a wide array of sound cues and information to your headset and phone. This could include GPS navigation and orientation, real-time bus arrivals and train times, tidbits about historical points of interest, directions to the nearest drug store, or even a reminder that you’re walking by a place with great Chinese takeout. Inside your local grocery store, sensors can help direct you to the biscuit aisle and you can pick your favorite sandwich by using your phone to scan barcodes on the packages.
Microsoft and its partners are now working to make this 3-D soundscape technology a reality for people with blindness. Although in the future, it’s not hard to imagine everyone using it for all sorts of daily challenges, whether you’re running late for work, exploring a new city where you don’t speak the language, or trying to find the nearest bathroom in a massive shopping mall.
After a few trips, Microsoft 3-D soundscape technology becomes practically invisible, and is no more obtrusive than a pair of corrective lenses or the favorite pair of sneakers you laced up on your way out the door.
In a future where mobility for all is a given, the hardest part will be deciding what adventure to pick next.