Unlocking cities through sound

AUTHOR: Inavate

The use of 3D audio technology has been harnessed to help people with sight loss navigate cities by painting a picture of the world using sound. Cities Unlocked is a partnership between Microsoft and British organisations Guide Dogs and Future Cities Catapult which aims to transform how both those with sight loss, and those who see perfectly, experience the urban landscape.

The technology involves the use of a smart headset, built in collaboration with AfterShokz, paired with a Windows Phone handset. Cloud-based location and navigation data works with a network of information beacons placed in urban locations to create a personalised 3D-soundscape transmitted through the wearer's jaw bone. This aids orientation, navigation and provides enhanced contextual information such as shops, points of interest, and additional journey details.

Following months of in depth field testing and research, those behind the project say that the programme has developed both an informed design process and a platform that has huge potential for society at large.

The origins of the Cities Unlocked programme did not start with technology. Amos Miller, a Microsoft employee and former trustee of British charity Guide Dogs who is visually impaired, was inspired to bring this project into being. In order to do so, Microsoft worked with Guide Dogs for two years to understand how a person’s experience of everyday life can be enhanced and enriched through the provision of contextually relevant information.

“This project started with a very common, but life changing experience," said Miller, director enterprises strategy for Microsoft Asia.

"I became a father and I wanted to share in and enjoy every day experiences outside of the home with my daughter. But as someone with sight loss, exploring new environments can be challenging.

“Today we have taken a big step forward with the launch of our phase one trial. We have built a means to help people create a mental map in real time. By painting a picture of the world through sound, similarly to how a lighthouse guides with light, we can remove much of the fear of new journeys and improve those which people are already familiar with.

“Living and researching complex challenges has informed our design process every step of the way. We have been able to develop something that has huge potential for society at large, not just those living with sight loss. Although this is very much a technology demonstrator at this stage, the positive feedback from our initial field testing provides reassurance that we are onto something potentially transformational for people with sight loss. With support from across Microsoft, including Satya Nadella our CEO, we are moving quickly to phase two trials.”