News

3D soundscapes unlock cities for the visually impaired

Guide dog puppies - new 3D soundscapes can help their work with the visually impaired

Businesses working with the Future Cities Catapult centre have trialled new technology that helps visually impaired people get around town.

A prototype headset on a route fitted with transmitters has helped visually impaired people travel independently from their home in Reading to London Paddington.

The successful trial came after Guide Dogs and Microsoft joined forces to see if they could come up with a way to help visually impaired people use public transport more easily.

They were joined by the Future Cities Catapult – one of a series of technology and innovation centres funded by Innovate UK – and a number of other businesses and researchers including Nokia Lumia, Aftershokz, Arup, Mubaloo, Olsawang, the University of Nottingham and the Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at University College London.

The project, Cities Unlocked, developed technology that improves a visually impaired person’s experience of the urban environment by using ‘3D soundscapes’ to increase confidence and well-being.

Beacons along the route transmit data to a headset and GPS pinpoints the user’s location. A series of pips changes pattern and frequency to help the user adjust direction. Beacons also provide a commentary about nearby landmarks or places of interest.

By working with people who are living with sight loss and developing a deep understanding of the challenges they face, we’ve shown that the right technology can empower people," said head of strategy and research for Guide Dogs, Jenny Cook.

The technology could have wider uses, and the Future Cities Catapult is working with several public and private organisations to roll out larger networks of beacons that could provide information to everyone.

"We all find navigation challenging. For tourists, delivery drivers or any other visitor, this research is very relevant – there could be any number of products and services here that can help people and have commercial value," said project lead urbanism at Future Cities Catapult Claire Mookerjee.

The Catapults are a network of world-leading centres designed to transform the UK’s capability for innovation in seven specific areas and drive future economic growth.