Unlocking cities through sound

06 Nov 2014

Creating a revolutionary urban experience for people with sight loss

Kirsty Grice using Microsoft 3D Audio technology in Reading StationCities Unlocked, a partnership between Microsoft, Guide Dogs and Future Cities Catapult, today launches the results of the first phase of an important project to revolutionise how people with sight loss, and the sighted, experience the urban landscape. Based on in depth research and ground breaking technology, Cities Unlocked has developed a new way to empower people with sight loss to independently and spontaneously explore their city and surroundings with confidence.

The culmination of months of in depth field testing and research sees the partnership unveil a revolutionary new application of 3D sound; the Microsoft 3D audio technology. Cities Unlocked headsetIt takes the form of a smart headset, built in partnership with AfterShokz, paired with a Windows Phone handset. Cloud based location and navigation data works with a network of information beacons placed in urban locations to create a personalised 3D-soundscape transmitted through the wearers jaw bone. This aids orientation, navigation and provides enhanced contextual information such as shops, points of interest, and additional journey details.

Jenny Cook, Head of Strategy and Research, Guide Dogs, said:

“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. Currently, visiting a new city is often daunting, even for people with enough confidence to tackle the challenge independently.  For others, who rarely leave home alone, the thought of an unfamiliar journey leaves them stressed and anxious, and visiting a new area is an impossible dream.

We're breaking new ground with this project. By working with people who are living with sight loss and developing a deep understanding of the challenges they face, we've shown that the right technology can empower people. At Guide Dogs, we already work with thousands of people to help them realise their potential, but 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.”

Kirstie Grice, a visually impaired trial participant said:

“We want to live like normal people, we don’t always want to plan ahead to see if we can get community transport, or a taxi or something, we want to be able to just jump on a bus and go somewhere and have that freedom.”

The origins of the Cities Unlocked programme did not start with technology. Amos Miller, a Microsoft employee and former trustee of Guide Dogs who is visually impaired, was inspired to bring this project into being. In order to do so, Microsoft worked with Guide Dogs for two years to understand how a person’s experience of everyday life can be enhanced and enriched through the provision of contextually relevant information.

Amos Miller, Director Enterprise Strategy, Microsoft Asia, said:

“This project started with a very common, but life changing experience.  I became a father and I wanted to share in and enjoy every day experiences outside of the home with my daughter. But as someone with sight loss, exploring new environments can be challenging.

Today we have taken a big step forward with the launch of our phase one trial. 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.

Living and researching complex challenges has informed our design process every step of the way. 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 testing provides reassurance that we are onto something potentially transformational for people with sight loss.  With support from across Microsoft, including Satya Nadella our CEO, we are moving quickly to phase two trials.”

Watch the Microsoft 3D audio technology in action

One of the long term ambitions of the programme is the hope that organisations and local authorities across the UK will come on board and help make their services more accessible for people living with sight loss.

Peter Madden, CEO, Future Cities Catapult said:

“Getting around the city can be stressful for all of us. Think how much worse this is if you suffer sight loss. This kind of technology can really help the visually impaired, and it could also make our cities much more accessible for everyone.

The UK can be a world leader in using technology and data to make cities better. This will not only improve quality of life for those of us that live in cities – it’s also an enormous business opportunity.
This collaboration shows just what we can do if we get the right mix of people together, really work to understand people’s needs, and then harness the very latest technology to find answers."

With two million people in the UK already living with sight loss  and two hundred and eighty five million visually impaired people around the world , the potential impact of this kind of project is huge.  Getting around cities is a nerve wracking experience for too many people, especially those living with sight loss.  Mobility is also key to a number of socioeconomic factors including, employment, health and productivity. The ability to travel independently, or not, can significantly affect a person's ability to go to school, engage in sport or get to and from social activities. This can have a knock-on impact on their ability to gain a job, and then easily travel to and from it. With unemployment amongst people living with sight loss currently sitting at 67% worldwide, increased mobility could help get more people living with sight loss into employment.

The Cities Unlocked programme sought to bring people with sight loss together with researchers, designers and technology providers to identify current urban challenges and develop new approaches to give people a greater level of freedom. Through experience and research of niche, complex challenges facing those living with sight loss, the programme has developed both an informed design process and a platform that has huge potential for society at large, not just those living with sight loss.

The technology demonstrator has initially been tested on a sample journey from Reading to London encompassing walking routes, bus travel, shopping, and train travel. The first pilot saw the trial tested with eight people living with sight loss as well as those who are sighted, and our research found that 10 of 17 measures of wellbeing were significantly increased when using the technology, with 62% of participants reporting an increased feeling of safety, confidence and resilience, allowing them to relax into the journey.  In addition, the research from the partnership has for the first time 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 especially stressful. The research has crucially identified a set of learnings for professionals who contribute to making cities more accessible for everyone such as town planners.

Organisations who would like to find out how they can get involved in the Cities Unlocked programme or who would like further information, including the Cities Unlocked video, should visit www.citiesunlocked.org.uk.


Watch the Cities Unlocked Video

To access a larger version of the video, click the 'full screen' icon in the window. There are screen reader accessible buttons for simple control of the video.