30 million people worldwide live with blindness, and 200 million more with a mild to severe visual impairment. Children, teenagers, women and men, moms and dads, grandparents.
When sight is not available, sound and other senses become the only way to perceive the world around us, but sensing the world using only sound is not an easy task. Especially when you consider that if something is not making any sound, “it doesn’t exist”. This is where Microsoft Soundscape comes in. Soundscape augments the world around us with sound.
Soundscape has become a valuable tool for everyone, but particularly for people who are blind or have low vision, to incorporate into their existing mobility skills when exploring and discovering the world around them, helping them to be more mobile, and grow in confidence, independence and social interaction.
From an interaction design point of view, the design problem is about creating a new paradigm in orientation and mobility:
- Avoid designing a prescriptive “turn-by-turn” navigation experience. Instead, craft the right interaction language that respectfully and objectively augments the world around us with sound so that we can perceive it, intuitively model it, and make our own mobility decisions.
- Design a full app and user interface where sound is the first-class citizen; all screen-based UI is therefore secondary.
- Define a practical and effective audio design language that uses 3D spatialized sound to help people perceive the world around them.
- Establish a rational balance between voice-based communication and synthetic sound design.
- Empower users with an accessible toolset in a way that it honors everyone’s personality, context, preferences and goals.
Soundscape has been in the iOS AppStore app for more than a year. Some examples of interaction design in the current version include:
- Spatialized Callouts. As people walk, Soundscape will automatically callout places of interest around them using 3D audio. This means people will hear the name of places, intersections, bus stops and more, as if they were coming from their actual position.
- Audio Beacon. Imagine a compass but instead of visually pointing to the “north”, the Soundscape audio beacon points to any selected place that the user wishes to use as reference for her walking.
- Marking places. With Soundscape, people can mark relevant and personal places.
The stories that people using Soundscape have shared with us have humbled us and inspire us every day:
- I CAN SEE. A lady with full blindness shared that after using Soundscape a few times she started “seeing lines”. “… I literally feel I’m seeing lines when Soundscape announces intersections”.
- REMAPPING OUR WORLD. A gentleman had been walking to his favorite pub for years only to learn, after using Soundscape, that it was safer and easier to arrive there with a shorter route he discovered himself.
- LEADING A WALK WITH THEIR BEST FRIEND. Using Soundscape, a blind woman would perceive places within her immediate surroundings prompting her to take the lead in discovering them with her friends.
User video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fiu4eecCqTY