New features of Microsoft's sound-mapping headset for blind people will make the tech more 'descriptive'

Microsoft upgrades headset for blind people

Microsoft has upgraded its experimental headset for blind people which features providing more information about landmarks in the surroundings. 

Dubbed Orientate and Look Ahead, the new features provide information about objects and sites in distance order as the wearer approaches them.

The headset, developed in cooperation with the charity Guide Dogs as part of the Cities Unlocked project, was unveiled last year. The device, linked to a Windows-powered smartphone, uses a constant clicking sound to guide wearers in the correct direction. It creates an audio 3D map that enables the wearer to understand that they are approaching a point and from which direction.

The new functionalities that provide additional information will enable the visually impaired person to create a mental image and thus gain more confidence, especially if they are in unfamiliar areas.

"It takes out so much of the stress of being somewhere new," said Kate Riddle, who trialled the new software as part of Microsoft’s tests.

"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'.”

Microsoft hopes the new features will make the technology more ‘descriptive rather than prescriptive’.

"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,” said Microsoft's Jarnail Chudge.

"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."

According to the company, 62 per cent of blind people who had tried the technology said it made them feel safer and more confident when walking outdoors. Guide Dogs hopes the technology could empower some 180,000 blind people in the UK who are not confident enough to leave their homes on their own.

The project was initiated by visually impaired Microsoft executive Amos Miller, who had previously worked for Guide Dogs and wanted to be able to do more activities with his daughter.

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


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