Navigating your way around a new city can be a challenge, even with the help of maps and city guides. But for the visually impaired, the experience can be all the more frustrating. So researchers in the UK have invented a new headset device that lets users hear their surroundings as a '3-D soundscape' to make urban areas much easier to navigate for blind people.
The headset is fitted with a GPS tracker and compass, and connects via Bluetooth to a Microsoft Windows smartphone to obtain information about the surrounding environment. A user can programme their route into the Bing Maps app, which then navigates them to their location while suggesting points of interest along the way.
As they walk, the user hears a continuous clicking noise, which is accompanied by a regular 'ping' to guide them along the correct route. The headset alerts the user if they're approaching obstacles such as parked cars or curbs, and if they happen to veer of the route, it alerts them with a 'swishing' sound.
The smart headset can also interact with Bluetooth-enabled beacons stuck to city lamp-posts that relay location-specific information such as bus timetables.
Instead of having earpieces, the headset contains nodes that sit in front of each ear, which emit the necessary vibrations to transmit sound through the user's cheekbones and into the inner-ear. The system bypasses the ear drum, allowing the user to still hear the noises around them, while also hearing the voice of the device.
The headset uses directional audio technology to trick the user's brain into thinking that sounds are coming from certain directions, creating a 3-D soundscape effect. For example, if there is a restaurant on the right, that's where the user will hear the information coming from.
The device has been developed by researchers at Microsoft in the US and a UK-based urban innovation research group called Future Cities Catapult. The team spent two years working with guide dogs and their handlers to understand the needs of visually impaired people, and they've already trialled several prototypes.
"There's no better meaning than helping someone to be independent in their life," said Jenny Lay-Flurrie, senior director at Microsoft, in a press release. "Everybody has that right, but not everybody has that capability. But I think with technology we can make it happen for everyone."
Find out how the headset works below: