Microsoft has partnered with an Australian organisation to customise and deploy a localised version of a sophisticated smartphone app which aims to help visually impaired people more easily navigate their environment.
The company has been working with Vision Australia to add several new features to the app, named Soundscape, especially for users in Australia. It follows on from a successful launch in the US and UK earlier this year.
Soundscape works by combining GPS location information with audible descriptions of surrounding landmarks and other key points of interest. The audio descriptions are broadcast via stereo headphones in a simulated 3D field, so users can discern the direction of objects in the environment.
The Australian version of the app adds the capability for users to add their own markers to locations that are not ordinarily included within their phone’s maps data. These beacons can be set up to call out refined location details such as buttons at pedestrian crossings, building entrances and public rubbish bins.
Microsoft has noted Soundscape is not designed to take the place of traditional aids for the visually impaired such as guide dogs and canes, but it may be able to offer more independence when navigating unfamiliar environments.
Vision Australia’s national assistive technology advisor David Woodbridge, who is himself visually impaired, told the Brisbane Times the app differs from other navigation aids in that it allows users to choose their own path rather than simply providing turn by turn instructions. He commented:
“For me, it really is about feeling stress free when I’m out and about. When you come to an intersection and Soundscape tells you where you are, it will tell you that Guilder Drive is on the left in your left ear, and Green Road is on the right in your right ear. It’s almost a physical feedback.”
Woodbridge added that Microsoft has so far only made the app available for iPhone, and while it is free, he hopes the company will in future develop an Android version so it can be installed onto other devices.
Microsoft has in recent years been deploying a number of technology-driven aids to help those with disabilities. Most recently, it launched the Adaptive Controller, a customisable video game controller for Xbox One and Windows PCs that makes user input more accessible. Other products include a reading aid for people with dyslexia and a wristwatch-like device that can curtail the effects of hand tremors arising from Parkinson’s disease.
Chief Accessibility Officer for Microsoft, Jenny Lay-Flurrie, has said Soundscape and other disability aids are the result of the company’s research into artificial intelligence, and over the next five years it will invest $25m (£19m) to ensure its products are accessible.
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