Microsoft has announced the Canadian launch of Soundscape, a navigation app that helps guide people with vision impairment using 3D audio queues.

Similar to current voice navigation apps today, Soundscape alerts its user of street names, points of interest, and provides wayfinding.

Where it differs is in its delivery method. Directions are relayed using 3D binaural audio, and users can even mark points of interest to improve a route’s familiarity. For example, when the user comes across a cafe, Soundscape will call out the shop’s name through the earpiece relative to the user’s position. Users are free to mark any object — be it a mailbox or statue — and save them in the app. The next time the user returns to the landmark, Soundscape would provide a similar audio queue.

Jarnail Chudge, Microsoft design and innovation architect and Soundscape creator, said that most people with visual impairment are able to memorize about five routes, which can impede their day-to-day travels. Microsoft Soundscape is designed to add richer audio queues to alleviate travel stress.

“The existing practices are all about having to memorize a route off by heart and requires an enormous amount of mental effort,” said Chudge in an interview with IT World Canada. “That defines or constrains what they’re able to do out and about on the road. And it takes an enormous amount of effort to be taught those routes to the point that a person can actually go out and do them on the road.”

Chudge said that a key goal for Soundscape is to empower its users to make their own route choices.

“We discovered that the moment you provide an instructional piece of information to a person, their whole attention is almost exclusively devoted to that piece of information, such as your turn less than 10 m, we can then think about is what 10 m look like. And you all of a sudden, you’re closing in into this little world around you and you no longer serve had this expansive awareness,” he explained. “That’s why we doubled-down on the use of sound to allow a person to have a greater appreciation awareness of what’s around them. And then we use sound queues to guide them in a way that they’re aware of where’s traffic and unexpected noises just as we subconsciously process them.”

Microsoft Soundscape relies on OpenStreetMap, a crowdsourced map program, for navigation. All the points of interest are pinned and reviewed by its community. To enrich the geolocation in areas where people scarcely visit, Microsoft has recently added Bing Map data to the app.

A snapshot of the Toronto downtown core in OpenStreetMap.

Jason Fayre, national lead of accessibility and assistive technology for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB), described why a traditional navigation system doesn’t work for Soundscape users.

“Apps like Google Maps do have turn-by-turn directions, but they’re not necessarily geared towards somebody with vision loss. So as you’re walking with Google, it may tell you when to turn, but it’s not going to tell you what streets you’re crossing. It’s not going to tell you about the intersections that you’re coming up to. And it’s not going to give you 3D audio feedback that Soundscape gives you. So soundscape is really a sort of a tailored solution.”

Canada is the fourth country to receive Soundscape, following the U.S., Australia, and the United Kingdoms. It’s the first to support both English and French languages.

The app is currently only available for iPhone 5S and later on the Apple App Store. Microsoft has yet to announce an official date for an Android version, only that it’s coming soon.



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