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Wired for Sound

Most of us take it for granted that we can walk around and find where we need to go and buy what we need to, without assistance. It’s something as sighted individuals we don’t really think about. But if you can’t see, going to new places, outside of the usual locations is a challenge and for many thousands of people it’s a problem that they struggle to overcome. But now technology is helping to make cities a lot easier to navigate for those without sight..
The Cities Unlocked project, created by Microsoft, Guide Dogs for the Blind and the UK government's Future Cities Catapult, is helping to develop innovative ways to make cities easier to navigate for the fully and partially sighted. Their ideas include soundscapes which guide users using sound through headphones and also infrared glasses which some partially sight people can see.
But it is the innovative headsets that have been publicized first. The most recent technology uses 3D sound to help people navigate around cities. Using a modified Bluetooth headset that transfers sound through the wearer’s jawbone gives the user the sensation that they are hearing the signals from outside their head and also allows them to hear what’s around them unimpeded. As well as the headset Microsoft has attached a small 3D printed box to the back of it. This box contains an accelerometer, a gyroscope and a compass and is used to position the wearer and track where they are going. The sounds are provided by a combination of sources such as Bluetooth-enabled beacons located on lampposts, RFID tags and mobile phone apps.
The navigation data and information about where the user is, is provided by Bing Maps and the Bing website.  Developers are also writing apps to help blind people perform a variety of task such as pressing the pedestrian crossing button in advance or using their cellphone’s camera to scan barcodes in supermarkets and audible inform the user what the product is.
According to Microsoft’s director of Enterprise Strategy at Microsoft Asia, Amos Miller (himself registered blind) ”We have built a means to help people create a mental map in real time, by painting a picture of the world through sound, similarly to how a lighthouse guides with light, we can remove much of the fear of new journeys and improve those which people are already familiar with.”
To demonstrate this innovative technology and show how it helps users become more independent,Future Cities Catapult has produced many videos. The trial went well, but as with all things there are a number of other challenges to getting a country wide roll out and that is getting local authorities and other organizations on board. But it’s a good start to getting cities to become smarter for all citizens.