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Unlocking cities through sound

6th November 2014

Cities Unlocked, our partnership with Microsoft and Guide Dogs, 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.

 Cities Unlocked, our partnership with Microsoft and Guide Dogs, 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. It 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.

You can see a demo of the Microsoft 3D audio technology in action here.

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 lossand 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.

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