How Microsoft and Guide Dogs are helping the blind to see

Microsoft has announced a major technology update to a partnership with charity Guide Dogs involving smart headsets and apps that help visually impaired better navigate their surroundings using sound.

How Microsoft and Guide Dogs are helping the blind to see

Two new experiences have been added to the software, which is part of Microsoft’s Cities Unlocked project, with users now able to use either their voice or a remote to ask for and hear additional information about their surroundings. This works alongside the navigation within the app that guides wearers to and around a destination using directional audio and sound prompts to help build a mental image.

The first prototype of the technology, which was unveiled last year, used a series of constant clicking sounds to guide wearers in the correct direction. However, Microsoft said this second phase had been re-designed to be more “descriptive rather than prescriptive”.

Microsoft invited us to Reading to test the technology around the town centre while blindfolded.

A sighted person tests Microsoft's Cities Unlocked technology while wearing a blindfold
Technology reporter Martyn Landi tests Cities Unlocked (Neil Ashley/Microsoft)

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’s coming up in order based on distance.

The audio navigation has also changed from phase one in 2014, with the clicking sound used to confirm you’re moving in the right direction reduced to short bursts, and only when one of the buttons on the remote is pressed to prompt it.

A man wearing a blindfold and testing audio navigation is guided through a town centre
Microsoft says the new software gives users more independence (Neil Ashley/Microsoft)

The physical remote that comes with the headset is designed to enable wearers who have a cane or guide dog to keep their hands free, as the remote means you can leave your phone in your pocket or bag. It has three buttons, each of which is linked to main function – whether it be to give you a compass direction, repeat the last piece of information, tell you what’s in your immediate surroundings or further info on those surroundings.

Microsoft calls the experience 3D audio – creating a map of what’s around you based on the sound you hear, and where it comes from.

Gerald James, Cities Unlocked trialist
Gerald James, Cities Unlocked trialist (Neil Ashley/Microsoft)

The audio is also managed to ensure it doesn’t interfere with street noise you might need to hear, using either bone-conducting headsets, or headphones that let in outside sounds.

Microsoft’s Jarnail Chudge said: “After phase one last year we started to think deeply about how we can empower people to be more independent, more mobile and act in much the same way as a sighted person would do.

“We do things on a whim, on a fancy and these are experiences which are very difficult for them because they’ve never been given the opportunity to go beyond those routes or those places that are familiar.”

Kate Riddle, one of the trialists of the new software version, said using the device gave her more confidence.

Cities Unlocked trialist Kate Riddle
Cities Unlocked trialist Kate Riddle (Neil Ashley/Microsoft)

“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’.

“If you have a person with you, you’re literally going to do what they want – you have to take that into account, even though they might be there for you ultimately they’re making decisions and choices on your behalf, which takes it away from you. This doesn’t, it’s entirely down to you and what you want. It gives you such much independence, it’s completely revolutionary and I would have it now.”

The mapping app used as part of Cities Unlocked
The mobile app that forms part of the experience (Neil Ashley/Microsoft)

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% of participants had an increased feeling of safety and confidence.

The project was initially the idea of Microsoft executive Amos Miller, who is visually impaired and had previously worked for Guide Dogs, and who wanted to be able to be more active with his daughter.

Aftershockz bone conducting headset
One of the Aftershockz bone-conducting headsets used in the trial (Neil Ashley/Microsoft)

“This project started with a very common, but life-changing experience,” he said.

“I became a father and I wanted to share in and enjoy every day experiences outside of the home with my daughter.”

According to the Royal National Institute of the Blind (RLIND), two million people in the UK are living with sight loss, with more than 285 million globally.

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