Microsoft 'Soundscape' app allows blind users to hear their environment
CTV's Avis Favaro and Elizabeth St. Philip, CTVNews.ca
Published Sunday, August 11, 2019 10:00PM EDT
Armed with his white cane, smartphone, and a pair of sunglasses with built-in Bluetooth speakers, Jason Fayre makes the journey to his local Starbucks with a renewed sense of independence.
Along the way, a new smartphone app designed to revolutionize the way blind people interact with the environment around them alerts him to his surroundings, acting as an audio beacon to his destination.
"It's honestly quite a liberating concept because not only am I getting information about what's around me, but I'm actually getting the spatial information on where it is around me," Fayre told CTV News.
Developed by Microsoft's research arm, the app, called Soundscape, uses 3D audio cues to help users get a better understanding of their surroundings. Unlike traditional step-by-step navigation tools, the app identifies the user's surroundings as they move, alerting them to landmarks through spatial audio.
"It gives you a 3D representation of what's going on… so, for example, if there is a coffee shop to your left, you'll hear it in your left ear," explained Fayre.
Though Fayre describes himself as a confident and frequent traveller, he says the app has allowed him even more confidence during his daily commutes and when he travels outside Toronto.
That type of feedback is music to the ears of Bill Buxton, Soundscape creator and principal researcher at Microsoft.
"The technology behind what we're doing dates back at least 20 years, but it takes a long time to become deployable," Buxton told CTV News.
"We're getting to the point that when you turn your head the sound stays where it is, so you can basically do the audio equivalent of a lighthouse, or a beacon, to let you know where things are."
Buxton, who calls the project the highlight of his career, says the app can also be helpful to sighted travellers when exploring foreign cities where street signs would be in different languages.
Canada is one of four countries to test out the free app, and the first to offer it in two languages: English and French.
The Canadian National Institute of the Blind (CNIB) is now training those with visual impairments to use the app.
"It's very user friendly. It's easy to use and there's not a lot of training required to begin using it," said Shane Laurnitus, lead of accessibility technology at the CNIB.
"It really says how important technology is to people and how important it is to get around independently and safely."