Pilot program helps people with sight loss navigate cities like never before

I stood in a cul-de-sac in Reading, a suburb 30 minutes west of London, preparing for one of the most unique journeys of my life.

“Journey” may seem a strong word for walking a few blocks and getting on a bus. At my normal pace, it should only be 444 steps from the Tudor-and-brick-walled quietude of Tamarisk Avenue to the bus stop around the corner. But considering the deeply meaningful work happening in this small corridor of England, and the way I’ll feel after my trip (as topsy-turvy as if I’d spent the day at Six Flags), there’s nothing else to call it but a journey.

It was midday on a Tuesday. The weather was capricious, scattering raindrops across our jackets one minute and warming our faces with sunshine the next.

“OK, I think we’re ready,” said Mike Parker, a kind, bearded Microsoft user experience designer. He handed me a shiny, black smart phone. “Your phone is all ready to go, so you can just put it in your pocket. Chris, do you have her cane?”

Chris Yates, an amiable mobility instructor for the charity Guide Dogs, handed me a long, white folding cane with a rubber stopper at the bottom and quickly showed me how to sweep it from side to side, tapping the pavement in front of me as if dipping a toe into bathwater of unknown temperature. As I tried the cane, Parker placed a pair of bone-conducting headphones around the back of my skull and handed me a heavy-duty black blindfold.

I was about to try a prototype of Microsoft’s 3D soundscape technology – an audio-rich experience in which the headset, smartphone and indoor and outdoor beacons all work together to enhance the mobility, confidence and independence of people with vision loss. This project is the result of a unique partnership between Microsoft, the charity Guide Dogs, and a number of other partners including Network Rail, Reading Buses, the urban planning agency Future Cities Catapult, the Reading Borough Council and the grocer Tesco (not to mention the understanding neighbors on Tamarisk Avenue).

Once the heavy blindfold blocked all the light, my other senses clumsily shifted and my hearing went into overdrive as the headset started sending 3D audio cues directly into my inner ear.

“Uh, I hear something like that galloping coconut noise from Monty Python,” I said. The guys chuckled.

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