Microsoft pilots revolutionary new Cities Unlocked headset

Rebecca Gibson
Rebecca Gibson
By Rebecca Gibson on 10 November 2014
Microsoft pilots revolutionary new Cities Unlocked headset

Microsoft, Guide Dogs and Future Cities Catapult have partnered to develop the Cities Unlocked headset, a revolutionary piece of 3D audio technology that helps people with sight loss to navigate their surroundings more easily.

Almost two million people in the UK already live with sight loss, while there are a further 285 million visually impaired people located across the globe. Many of these people struggle to make everyday journeys independently, which can make it difficult for them to attend school, find employment and enjoy a fulfilling social life. It is hoped the new technology will increase their independence and mobility, reducing the number of visually impaired people who are unemployed.

The headset was developed as part of the Cities Unlocked project, which has taken place over the past two years to identify the everyday challenges of living with sight loss and to design technology that can help to empower visually impaired people to independently explore their surroundings.

“People living with sight loss face a multitude of challenges every day that can prevent them from getting where they want to be in life,” said Jenny Cook, head of strategy and research at Guide Dogs. “We’re breaking new ground with this project and we’re confident that this technology, alongside guide dogs and other mobility aids, could open up new possibilities for many people living with sight loss.”

Built in partnership with AfterShokz, the headset is paired with a Windows Phone handset and uses cloud-based location and navigation data and a network of information beacons placed in urban locations to create a personalised 3D-soundscape transmitted through the wearer’s jaw bone. This aids orientation, navigation and provides enhanced contextual information such as shops, points of interest and additional journey details.

Eight people living with sight loss and eight sighted participants tested the prototype during a sample journey from Reading to London, which encompassed walking, bus travel, shopping and train travel.

Results indicated that 10 of 17 measures of wellbeing were significantly increased when people used the technology, with 62% of participants reporting an increased feeling of safety, confidence and resilience during the journey.

“This project started with a very common, but life changing experience,” said Amos Miller, director of enterprise strategy at Microsoft Asia and former trustee of Guide Dogs, who is visually impaired and pioneered the project after becoming a father. “We’ve built a means to help people create a mental map in real time. We have been able to develop something that has huge potential for society at large, not just those living with sight loss. Although this is very much a technology demonstrator at this stage, the positive feedback from our initial field tests provides reassurance that we are onto something potentially transformational for people with sight loss.”

In addition, the research quantified the different emotional experiences of walking in the city between sighted and a range of people with sight loss, identifying crossings and pedestrianised shopping areas as particularly stressful. This has provided a new set of criteria for architects and town planners to consider when making cities more accessible for citizens.

Microsoft will help to develop the technology over the second and third phases of the project, while it is hoped that more organisations and local authorities from across the UK will join Cities Unlocked and make their services more accessible for people living with sight loss.

A video demonstrating the Cities Unlocked headset can be found here.

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