Unlike bats, humans can’t see with their ears. Now an app is giving sightless pedestrians the ability to navigate by ear.

What’s new: Microsoft’s Artificial Intelligence and Research Laboratory offers a free iPhone app called Soundscape. Unlike earlier efforts that tried to identify objects visually, the app orients pedestrians in space by calling out nearby buildings, businesses, landmarks, and road crossings as the walker approaches.

How it works: Essentially a navigation app. But unlike conventional navigation apps that issue directions to a destination (“Turn left here!”), Soundscape narrates points of interest along the way. That helps people who don’t see well to explore like a sighted person can — for example, popping into a bakery that caught their attention on the way to work, or simply taking a random walk.

  • Soundscape interprets a phone’s GPS signals and accelerometer to determine the user’s location, trajectory, and facing direction. It pulls labels from a map to describe the surrounding environment.
  • Then it speaks these descriptions in stereo. If the user passes a store on the left, the narrator’s voice sounds in their left ear. If the user approaches a crosswalk on the right, they’ll hear about it in their right ear.
  • Users can also set homing beacons. Select a destination — say, the entrance ramp to their favorite coffee shop. The app provides a soft, snappy drum beat that increases in volume as you approach the destination. It adds a rhythmic ping when you face the destination directly.

Behind the news: Project lead Amos Miller, a developer and product strategist at Microsoft, lost his sight as an adult due to a genetic condition. You can hear an interview with him in this podcast.

Why it matters: Several previous apps for visually impaired people attempt to replace human vision with computer vision: Point a camera at an object or person, and the app classifies what it sees. That approach has yet to catch on, leaving the field ripe for fresh approaches.

We’re thinking: Soundscape isn’t just for the sight-impaired. It may be worth a try the next time you visit a new city and want to take in the sights without constantly referring to a map.


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