How a new app helps the blind explore their cities

Blind people and people with low vision have dogs or canes and the skills they've developed to help them get around. But depending on where they want to go or what they want to do, their lack of sight can hamper their independence and mobility. But now, a 3D audio app from Council Global Lead Partner Microsoft called Soundscape offers a way for them to gather information about their surroundings, navigate more confidently and relate to their environment more. Smart cities work to provide inclusive mobility — mobility for everyone — and this technology could be thought of as one of many ways to help accomplish that goal. — Doug Peeples


"If you're living with sight loss, getting around towns and cities can be daunting," said Tom Wright, chief executive of the charity Guide Dogs, in a Microsoft news release. Choosing where to go and what to do is an impossible dream. Soundscape will change this for many people.

"We worked with Microsoft to put people with sight loss at the heart of the development of Soundscape. This close collaboration has resulted in an app that makes exploring towns and cities a more enjoyable experience for those with sight loss, enabling people to make spontaneous choices about where they go and what they do."

How it works
The free app is currently available in the U.S. and the UK on iOS and iPhone. Users connect stereo headsets to their phones and can set audio beacons for destinations and landmarks  . The 3D audio is heard as coming from the location the user is interested in. As one user explained, "I use My Location in Soundscape, which tells me what's around me. It tells me all the street names I didn't know before. One of the most useful things is that you can put in points of interest. I've put a tower that is at the end of my street, which is really, and that's where I head towards for home."

The app has other features, also. It can run in the background while the user is using other programs. If a user is unsure about where they are or which route to take, the app can help them re-orient themselves.

Soundscape was created to be used in conjunction with canes and guide dogs and not as a sole means of navigation.

Amos Miller, a Microsoft product strategist and researcher, began working on the project four years. Miller, who had completely lost his sight, believed technology could greatly improve mobility independence for visually impaired people. He assembled a team of Microsoft researchers and solicited help from guide dog organizations and others in the field.

Among them is Erin Lauridsen, Access Technology Director for LightHouse for the Blind. As she explained, "Obstacle avoidance is not the problem, we have a dog, a cane and our blindness skills for that. The gap is knowing where things are and being able to decide what's of interest.

"At LightHouse, we know that accessible technology can play a huge role in helping more people be productive, gain confidence and become self-reliant. Soundscape addresses a crucial need — a tool for efficiently exploring your surroundings."

Doug Peeples is a Portland, Oregon-based writer specializing in technology and energy. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.