Microsoft's Soundscape app lets blind 'see' by reading from 3D map
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Microsoft's Soundscape app lets blind 'see' by reading from 3D map

Microsoft is launching an iPhone app designed to help the visually impaired navigate their way around from the moment they step outside.

Soundscape gives the blind or those with low vision greater spatial and location awareness by providing them audible clues about where they are and where they are going.

Using a combination of 3D audio and GPS, Soundscape can call out roads, intersections and landmarks as the user walks along, helping them form a mental map of their surroundings.

Screens from the US version of the Soundscape app.

Screens from the US version of the Soundscape app.

Photo: Supplied

The app was initially made available to the US and UK earlier this year, but the Australian version launching today comes with some new features based on months of feedback and testing from Vision Australia.

One of the key new features is the ability to set up personal markers or beacons on locations that would not traditionally appear in maps such as entrances to buildings or parks, push-to-walk buttons at traffic lights or a user’s favourite lunch spot.

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According to David Woodbridge, who has lived with low vision his entire life and also happens to be the national assistive technology advisor for Vision Australia, what separates Soundscape from traditional navigation apps is that it actually empowers the user to make their own navigational choices instead of just barking turn-by-turn directions.

“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,” he says.

“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. national assistive technology advisor for Vision Australia.

David Woodbridge. national assistive technology advisor for Vision Australia.

Photo: Supplied

Microsoft says that while Soundscape can provide the visually impaired with greater independence while exploring the outside world, it isn’t intended to replace traditional mobility aids such as canes and guide dogs. The app also relies on the user taking in the sounds of the environment in addition to the information coming from the soundscape app so the user can build a more accurate picture of what’s around.

Woodbridge for instance uses a listening 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.

While the iPhone app is free, Woodbridge says he would like to see an Android version of the app so it could be used on cheaper phones, further enhancing accessibility. The app also isn’t applicable for people who are both deaf and blind due to its limited support for braille.

Ahead of the announcement Jenny Lay-Flurrie, Microsoft's chief accessibility officer, spoke exclusively with Fairfax Media in Seattle about the Soundscape launch in Australia and the company’s continued focus on accessibility. She says the rapid transformation in artificial intelligence is creating ‘extraordinary opportunities’ for people with disabilities.

Microsoft chief acceessibility officer Jenny Lay-Flurrie.

Microsoft chief acceessibility officer Jenny Lay-Flurrie.

Photo: Supplied

“Our focus is to see how we can empower people with disabilities to be successful in the workplace, home and in life. Technology can be a huge enabler of this," Lay-Flurrie says.

“The launch of Soundscape in Australia in partnership with Vision Australia is a great example of how technology really can impact the day-to-day lives of people with a disability.”

Microsoft's inclusive design mission can be seen in recent initiatives such as the Adaptive Controller designed for gamers with limited mobility, the Emma Watch which aids people with Parkinson’s Disease and Microsoft’s Immersive Reader to help children with Dyslexia.

According to the World Health Organisation, one billion people (or 15 per cent of the world’s population) experience some form of disability. Microsoft is investing $25 million over the next five years toward technologies such as AI, to ensure their products are accessible.

Other tech companies are also leveraging advances in AI, computer vision and voice recognition to deliver tools that assist people with disabilities. In May, Google announced that it was building an app similar to Soundscape called Lookout, designed to help the blind and the visually impaired be more independent by giving them spoken notifications about their environment.