Microsoft is working on a wearable "Alice band" that helps blind people to navigate their surroundings. It has received some publicity in the UK, partly because Queen Elizabeth will see the project in Reading on Thursday. However, it's part of a research project, not a commercial development. It's not Microsoft's answer to Google Glass.
Microsoft is working with Guide Dogs for the Blind in a Cities Unlocked project, which is part of the government-backed Future Cities Catapult. This is one of seven "Catapults" launched by the UK's Technology Strategy Board, with the aim of developing world-leading innovations in specialist areas. The Catapults represent a £1bn investment over five years.
The Microsoft project is aimed at helping blind and partially sighted people to get around, including by public transport. This starts with "understanding the user experience", which includes tracking testers and building "anxiety maps" of their stress levels.
According to a report in The Sunday Times (Smart Alice to change city life): "The device works by bouncing information from sensors mounted on any item such as buildings or train carriages to a receiver in the wearer's headband. In Reading it is helping blind people to find their way around a warren of staircases, escalators and ticket barriers at one of Britain's busiest commuter stations and use services at banks and shops."
While there are few tangible details, Guide Dogs illustrated the concepts in a video, A Family Day Out, produced with Microsoft UK and others in 2012. This shows a user receiving information via an earpiece. A more recent video explains the Cities Unlocked project.
The long-term aim is to improve the urban experience for all users. Future Cities says: "Our Catapult is all about urban innovation. In particular, we're focused squarely on the challenge of urban integration — how cities can take a more joined-up approach to the way they plan and operate. To improve quality of life, strengthen their economy and protect the environment."
The Future Cities Catapult is still looking for "cities, business, academia and international institutions" to get involved.