Microsoft's blind navigation app Soundscape launches

Australia release of 3D audio wayfinding app

Microsoft has launched a 3D audio wayfinding app for people who are blind or have low-vision in Australia.

Soundscape allows users to place beacons at an address or landmark. As individuals make their way around an environment, the app gives audible alerts of where the location is in relation to the direction they’re facing, for example: “Beacon on bike track on road next to school, 398 metres ahead”.

“The intention of Soundscape is not to replace aids such as a dog guide or cane, but to enable a user to more naturally and intuitively connect with their environment without disrupting their ability to attend to other tasks, activities, or interactions with other people,” Microsoft said. 

It was launched in the US and UK in February, and after input from not-for-profit blindness and low vision organisation Vision Australia, is now available here for free on iOS and iPhone.

“Soundscape gives me confidence in an outside environment, by helping me understand what’s around me – whether it’s a restaurant, café, railway station, walking track, park, business or even a street name. It allows me to build a mental map of my neighbourhood,” said David Woodbridge, access technology advisor at Vision Australia.

Users can also set beacons to audibly ping. Using stereo headphones allows the user to hear from what direction the ping is coming from and make their way towards it.

“It’s almost a physical feedback,” Woodbridge said.

Since hearing their surroundings is important for those with low or no vision, users will typically use bone conduction headphones to listen to Soundscape.

Microsoft ANZ managing director Steven Worrall (left) with David Woodbridge (centre) and Vision Australia's orientation and mobility team.
Microsoft ANZ managing director Steven Worrall (left) with David Woodbridge (centre) and Vision Australia's orientation and mobility team.

The app's origins go back to 2014, when the project was launched by Amos Miller, a Microsoft product strategist and researcher in the UK who was born with a genetic eye disease that later led to sight loss.

He worked with Guide Dogs UK to develop the app and made further improvement with help from LightHouse for the Blind, a nonprofit in the US.

Ahead of Soundscape’s Australia launch, Microsoft spent six months working with Vision Australia’s orientation and mobility team to help them test and understand the app’s features.

“Rather than dictate what I should do, it allows me to make my own decisions based on the information it is providing, meaning I am always in control. For me, it really is about feeling stress free when I’m out and about. The app is easy to use and I have my own personal markers set for different locations. My local coffee shop is always a priority and the ‘coffee shop’ marker on Soundscape gets a lot of use,” Woodbridge said.

The potential for an Android version of the app is currently being explored, Microsoft said.

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Tags Microsoftaccessibilityvision australiaassistive technologyblindlow visionno visionSoundscape

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