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Case Study - Cities Unlocked

Researchers have developed a new device that uses 3D sound and location sensors to make cities more accessible for visually impaired pedestrians. Applications of the technology are expected to extend beyond this group and could also include, for example, the tourism industry.

Smartphone apps such as mapping tools and route planners have made cities easier to navigate for most pedestrians. But for the blind and partially sighted, moving around urban areas remains a serious challenge. Although solutions like canes and guide dogs can help people avoid obstacles, it does not truly help them understand their surroundings. A new augmented reality device that is being tested in the UK now promises to extend the digital location revolution to people dealing with sight loss. Some 180,000 blind and partially sighted people across Great Britain are estimated to rarely leave their homes by themselves because of their condition. This number is set to grow, with the almost two million people with sight issues living in the UK expected to double by 2050. (Source: Edelman UK)

A wireless headset equipped with spatial sound technology could help thousands of people dealing with sight loss regain their independence, but the major investments required and the relatively small userbase meant the market was moving slowly, initially. But Future Cities Catapult, the Government-backed global centre of excellence in urban innovation, has helped convene and showcase the Cities Unlocked project to help Guide Dogs UK and Microsoft in partnership with a set of over 40 organisations to develop the sound-based technology. The device connects to a smartphone app and creates a 3D picture of a location by reading out the names of businesses, buildings and objects. The device is seen as revolutionary for visually impaired people, but applications could also expand to sectors such as the tourism industry.

3D sound

“It is revolutionary what’s happening here with sound. It’s never been done before, to create a 3D soundscape of the world around you when we are so used to using our vision,” says Dee Beach, a mobility instructor at Guide Dogs. The headset makes innovative use of range technology, and works with GPS, accelerometers and a compass to determine which way a user is looking. New software developed by Microsoft places spatially situated verbal and non-verbal sounds around the users. A voice coming from the direction of objects and businesses alerts people wearing the headset about their locations.

A challenge often faced by businesses that develop a pioneering technology is finding real-life settings to test and demonstrate their innovations. Future Cities Catapult was able to fast-track this process for the Cities Unlocked project partners by using its existing network across the region to bring together a range of organisations and businesses keen to help test the technology. “The Cities Unlocked project is a fantastic example of how collaboration between the business sector and civil society can accelerate life-changing innovations,” says Scott Cain, Chief Business Officer of Future Business Catapult. With the Catapult’s help, devices have already been tested by volunteers along a technologically enabled route between London and Reading, using GPS, Bluetooth beacons and Wi-Fi.

Spacial Tagging

By simply asking “Where am I” or “What is around me,” users of the 3D soundscape headset unlock a virtual picture of their direct surroundings. The software relies on Open Street Map data, but also allows users to contribute items to the map. Volunteers and business owners can use the app to tag objects not found on regular mapping services. Users can add anything ranging from benches and bins to monuments and plaques.

Different versions of the device are being tested, including a special headset that transmits sound via vibrations. People wear the vibrating headset like traditional headphones, but instead of covering their ears the device touches their jawbones to transmit sound – which research shows is preferable for those with sight loss as a directional tool.  Another version of the headset functions like traditional on-ear headphones but ensures sound can still filter through from outside.

The devices also work indoors, where they are triggered by Bluetooth beacons. Compatible beacons are already used for marketing in shops and malls, allowing retailers to customise their digital advertising based on the location of consumers. The products and technologies are being developed and enhanced ahead of commercial applications being made available.

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