US tech giant Microsoft is developing a smart headset capable of creating 3D sound maps to help visually impaired people to get better orientation in the environment.
The UK-based project is part of the Cities Unlocked initiative, and is a partnership between Microsoft, the Guide Dogs charity and the Future Cities Catapult.
Microsoft's 3D audio technology uses a smart headset, built in partnership with AfterShokz, that conducts sound through the jaw bone rather than covering the ears. Paired with a Windows Phone handset, the system provides direction-based sound that allows the wearers to understand not only that they are approaching a certain point but also from which direction.
Sound is played through the ear-piece on either side at different levels depending on the direction of the object from the user. The sound responds in real time to the user’s motion in relation to the object, providing better understanding of the surrounding space.
"We want to live like normal people, we don't always want to plan ahead to see if we can get community transport, or a taxi or something, we want to be able to just jump on a bus and go somewhere and have that freedom," said Kirstie Grice, a visually impaired participant of the first round of trials.
The headset cooperates with a gesture-controlled app on Windows Phone to help improve orientation, navigation and offer contextual information such as the location of shops and journey details.
When moving, the wearer is guided by a clicking sound that confirms they are on the correct route, which is combined with beeps that fade when users move off course.
The prototype device 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.
"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. Today we have taken a big step forward with the launch of our phase one trial.”
According to the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), two million people in the UK are living with sight loss, with more than 285 million globally.
Cities Unlocked said 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 per cent of participants had an increased feeling of safety and confidence thanks to the 3D audio technology.
The headset sources data from search engines including Bing and Google to provide the real-time information about locations and points of interest as the user gets near to them. This feature, Microsoft believes, could open further applications, providing information to everyone trying to find his or her way through a busy city.
"This kind of technology can really help the visually impaired, and it could also make our cities much more accessible for everyone," said Future Cities Catapult CEO Peter Madden.
The software flags up shops and businesses, as well as points of interest, and Microsoft said this was something they would continue to explore.
The headset remains a prototype for now, but Microsoft confirmed it would continue to trial its use.