How Microsoft Soundscape can help people who are vision impaired

6 Aug 2021

Michael Healy using the Soundscape app. Image: Microsoft Ireland

Using 3D audio cues, Microsoft’s Soundscape app aims to help users create mental maps of unfamiliar environments and boost navigation confidence.

Microsoft has launched Soundscape in Ireland, an app that uses 3D audio to give people a richer sense of their environment.

The app, which is now available for free on iOS, aims to help people who are blind or vision impaired to navigate around cities and towns by employing audio technology.

Unlike step-by-step navigation apps, Soundscape’s 3D audio cues are designed to help users build mental maps of unfamiliar surroundings and boost their confidence in making personal route choices.

The app stays live in the background, so users can continue to use other apps such as podcasts, audio books, email and GPS navigation.

To test the app locally, Microsoft worked with the National Council for the Blind in Ireland (NCBI), where mobility specialists have been helping people use the app over the past year.

One of these users is Dublin-native Michael Healy, who has been trialling Soundscape to travel independently and get back to work after recently losing his vision.

“The app helped me to navigate my daily routes and to start going out independently,” Healy said. “Being mobile has given me back my independence and the confidence to find employment. The Soundscape app has been truly life-changing.”

Chantelle Smith, national access and mobility manager at NCBI, said technology is a “huge enabler” for people with vision impairment or blindness.

“Over the past year, I’ve seen first-hand how the Microsoft Soundscape app has supported Michael to regain the independence that went with him losing his sight. Soundscape has the potential to positively impact the lives of almost 55,000 people in Ireland who are blind or vision impaired to more freely navigate the world around them.”

James O’Connor, vice-president of Microsoft International Operations, added that the app shows what can be achieved with “the power of accessible technology”.

“At Microsoft, we believe that technology can play a vital role in creating a more inclusive Ireland and empowering positive change in our society.”

While a key focus is users who are blind or have a vision impairment, Microsoft said that Soundscape can be used by anyone and people in other countries have found new and creative ways of using the app.

In one example, a group of 11-year-olds used Soundscape to create a heritage trail of historical sites in their town, with a 3D spatial audio experience taking them from landmark to landmark.

Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic