Unlocking Cities through sound

Microsoft 3D technology

A revolutionary new application of 3D sound; the Microsoft 3D audio technology to help provide visually impaired people with real time assistance, unlocking cities through sound.

Guest Post courtesy of Dan Hill City of Sound

cities of sound

Cities Unlocked draws on the expertise of Future Cities Catapult, Guide Dogs and Microsoft to understand the mobility challenges faced by people with sight loss in our cities. The idea is centered on unlocking cities with sound.

We are…

A unique collaboration between Guide Dogs; the global urban innovation centre – Future Cities Catapult; and the multinational technology company – Microsoft. We are also working with partners from across business and academia.

We believe…

Too often it can feel like public spaces and services – from parks to transport systems – are designed with insufficient consideration for the people they serve. We believe that technology can open up our cities and reduce the stress associated with getting around urban spaces.

We have…

Conducted research into the challenges faced by people with sight loss as they navigate through cities. We have developed and tested a new demonstrator technology that provides a real time auditory guide.


The statistics are fairly sobering:
180,000 people in the UK rarely leave their house alone, as the city is rendered largely inaccessible to them.
The unemployment rate amongst those with sight loss is around 70%, as compared to 7% for the general population.
And by 2050, the number of people with visual impairment in the UK doubles to around 4 million people, as the population ages.
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 have sight loss. This kind of technology can really help visually impaired people, 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 loss and 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.

So there is a genuine need underlying this project; and the technology has real promise, in terms of beginning to address those issues. Yet designing a better urban environment, from curbs to beacons to maps to transport services, is likely to enable a better city for all.

The result

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.

What does it do…

The headset aids orientation, navigation and provides enhanced contextual information such as shops, points of interest, and additional journey details.
The technology is designed to augment, rather than replace, other assistive elements like guide dogs themselves, and white cane. It uses a variety of technologys, from beacons embedded in the urban environment (in this case, based around a journey from London Paddington to a suburban street in Reading) to a modified Aftershokz headset, packed with accelerometers, compass, gyro etc, to sense which direction the head is pointing.

The 3D soundscape keeps the user on-track, as well as noting ‘points of interest’, including real-time elements such as “The number 9 bus is pulling in here in 30 seconds; reserved seats at the front …” etc. How amazing is that!
At RUS we love inventions and this is definitely an amazing invention. We will be featuring this on our Friday #InventedIthour on Twitter

You can find out more at http://www.citiesunlocked.org.uk, a site unpacking all the research, coordinated by Claire Mookerjee.