Microsoft updates smart headsets for visually impaired

Microsoft in collaboration with Guide Dogs has updated its assistive technology to create a more useful experience for those with vision impairments.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

In collaboration with British charity Guide Dogs, Microsoft has updated its assistive technology, adding smart headsets and an app aimed to help those with vision impairments better navigate their surroundings using sound.

The first prototype of the technology was unveiled last year and used a series of constant clicking sounds to guide wearers in the correct direction. According to Microsoft, phase two of the technology includes a redesign which it said is more "descriptive rather than prescriptive".

Microsoft said the collaboration with Guide Dogs allows them to explore the potential the technology has to enable people living with sight loss to become independent and confident when outside.

The computer giant was initially inspired to create the technology by an employee of theirs, Amos Miller. With a visual impairment himself, Miller was motivated by the birth of his daughter to create a life where he could be with her outdoors and not feel fear or anxiety he would usually have when exploring new environments unaccompanied.


AfterShokz Bluez 2 bone conducting headset

(Image: Microsoft)

In phase one, the device worked by bouncing information from sensors mounted on any item such as buildings or train carriages to a receiver in the wearer's headband.

According to Microsoft, the technology was updated when those trialling phase one found in lieu of sight, sound is used as an anchor.

"Guiding by sound in the same way a lighthouse guides by light, this technology demonstrator paints you a picture with sound," Microsoft said. "Placing spatially situated synthetic sounds around you -- both verbal and non-verbal -- it creates a 3D soundscape of the world in a language you can understand."

The new "Orientate" and "Look Ahead" features enable wearers to instantly find out what is immediately around them, as well as get more information about what is coming up, hearing it in distance order.

Two new experiences that have been added to the software allow users to use either their voice or a physical remote to ask for and hear additional information about landmarks around them. This works alongside navigation within the app that guides wearers to and around a destination using directional audio and sound prompts to help build a mental image.

Additionally, Microsoft developed an integrated application called "CityScribe" which enables people to tag obstacles in their city which most mapping services do not pick up including park benches, low jutting corners, bins, or street furniture.

"It does paint a picture of the town," said Gerald James, who trialled the update. "It told me all the different shops on each side of the road but it also told me the names of the streets and also the compass direction. I just think it gives you greater freedom really and gives you more independence."

Kate Riddle, who also trialled the technology, said using the device gave her more confidence.

"It takes out so much of the stress of being somewhere new," she said. "That is massively empowering, and it makes the journey pleasurable rather than a chore. Rather than going out because you have to, this is a 'going out because I can'."

The technology forms part of Microsoft's Cities Unlocked project, which is part of the government-backed Future Cities Catapult. The Microsoft initiative is one of seven launched by the UK's Technology Strategy Board, with the aim of developing world-leading innovations in specialist areas.

The Catapult initiative as a whole has been given a £1 billion investment over five years.

Microsoft said its side of the mission is about empowering people with technology to be more productive and to achieve more of the things they want in life.

"With continual learning from Guide Dogs, we are building a technological proof point that not only has the potential to change lives for those living with sight loss, but, by focusing on the specific challenges they face every day, we are realising the wider benefits for sighted people," Microsoft said.

"We believe that technology can fundamentally change lives, to give people control of their world and how they want to experience it as well as do more of the things they care about. Cities Unlocked is opening up this world of possibility."

Cities Unlocked said research had found that around 180,000 registered blind people in the UK were not confident enough to leave their homes alone. But research conducted by Microsoft's partnership after their initial trial found that 62 percent of participants had an increased feeling of safety and confidence.

With AAP

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