A new pilot program sets people with sight loss free to experience cities like never before

Independence Day

A new pilot program sets people with sight loss free to experience cities like never before.

By Jennifer Warnick

“Journey” may seem a strong word for walking a few blocks and getting on a bus. At my normal pace, it should only be 444 steps from the Tudor-and-brick-walled quietude of Tamerisk Avenue to the bus stop around the corner. But considering the deeply meaningful work happening in this small corridor of England, and the way I’ll feel after my trip (as topsy-turvy as if I’d spent the day at Six Flags), there’s nothing else to call it but a journey.

It was midday on a Tuesday. The weather was capricious, scattering raindrops across our jackets one minute and warming our faces with sunshine the next. “OK, I think we’re ready,” said Mike Parker, a kind, bearded Microsoft user experience designer. He handed me a shiny, black smart phone. “Your phone is all ready to go, so you can just put it in your pocket. Chris, do you have her cane?” Chris Yates, an amiable mobility instructor for the charity Guide Dogs, handed me a long, white folding cane with a rubber stopper at the bottom and quickly showed me how to sweep it from side to side, tapping the pavement in front of me as if dipping a toe into bathwater of unknown temperature. As I tried the cane, Parker placed a pair of bone-conducting headphones around the back of my skull and handed me a heavy-duty black blindfold.

I was about to try a prototype of Microsoft’s 3D soundscape technology — an audio-rich experience in which the headset, smartphone and indoor and outdoor beacons all work together to enhance the mobility, confidence and independence of people with vision loss.

This project is the result of a unique partnership between Microsoft, the charity Guide Dogs, and a number of other partners including Network Rail, Reading Buses, the urban planning agency Future Cities Catapult, the Reading Borough Council and the grocer Tesco (not to mention the understanding neighbors on Tamarisk Avenue).

Once the heavy blindfold blocked all the light, my other senses clumsily shifted and my hearing went into overdrive as the headset started sending 3D audio cues directly into my inner ear.

“Uh, I hear something like that galloping coconut noise from Monty Python,” I said. The guys chuckled.

The team placed Bluetooth beacons on fixed neighborhood objects to help create an information-boosted route through a London suburb.

The galloping coconuts sound seemed to be coming from a meter or two in front of me, and would become a comforting indicator of my forward progress on the correct (beacon-embedded) path through the neighborhood. (Later, lost and hungry in London, I found myself wishing the galloping coconuts could lead me to the nearest well-reviewed pub for a pie and a pint.)

As I took my first tentative steps, I noticed a second sound — a sort of sonar ping. Within a few strides the ping seemed to move to my left side (which it turns out was to let me know I was veering left toward the curb). As I corrected, the pinging sound moved back to center as the clip-clops continued to nudge me forward. Periodically, a voice offered turn-by-turn directions, nearby points of interest (“Chiropractor, about 10 meters”), transportation updates (“No. 9 bus is approaching”) and even polite warnings (“Be aware: This is a main road”). Because the headphones didn’t cover my actual ears, I could also listen for environmental noises. I’d never before had an audio experience like this — its richness helped me visualize the neighborhood around me while its immersiveness gave me more confidence with every step.

Eventually, about halfway through the walk, I relaxed enough to carry on a conversation. By the time I reached the bus stop, I was chatting away with the team from Microsoft and Guide Dogs, even as the headset beamed route updates and points of interest to my inner ear.

I was so excited to get the hang of it that I was reluctant to remove the blindfold and headset once we reached Reading Station. Parker and Yates said this is a common reaction from people who have made the journey, visually impaired and sighted alike.

I’m not sure if I could make my way across my own living room blindfolded, at least not without some bruising, and yet I’d just traveled across an unfamiliar city relying primarily on a cane and a few well-placed, 3D sounds. Where I anticipated feeling vulnerable and anxious in the blindfold, I ended up feeling strangely super-powered wearing the headset, like some sort of dry-land dolphin.

“Man,” I thought to myself as the train to London pulled away from Reading Station, “there hasn’t been this much magic in the British suburbs since Harry Potter was dropped at 4 Privet Drive.”

The prototype headset is, rather charmingly, held together by red electrical tape. The Windows Phone is off-the-shelf. The Bluetooth beacons sending information to the headset and phone look like plastic, Smurf-colored Oreo cookies, and they are zip-tied to poles and lamp posts. Yet somehow, the delightfully DIY experience is vastly more than the sum of its parts. It may not look particularly magical, but we all know how deceiving looks can be.