Most of us take it for granted that we can walk around and find where we need to go without any problems. It's something as sighted individuals we don't really think about. But if you can't see, going to new places outside of the usual locations is a challenge and a problem they struggle to overcome. But now technology is helping to make cities a lot easier to navigate for those without sight.
The Cites Unlocked project, created by Microsoft, Guide Dogs for the Blind, and the UK government Future Cities Catapult, is helping to develop innovative ways to make cities easier to navigate for the fully and partially sighted. Their ideas include soundscapes which guide users by using sound through headphones and also infrared glasses which some partially sight people can see.
But it is the innovative headsets that have been publicized first. The most recent technology uses 3D sound to help people navigate around the city. Using a modified Bluetooth headset that transfers sound through the wearer's jawbone gives the user the sensation that they are hearing the signals from outside their head and also allows them to hear what's around them unimpeded. As well, Microsoft has attached a small 3D printed box to the back of the headset. The box contains an accelerometer, a gyroscope, and a compass that is used to position the wearer and track their location. The sounds are provided by a combination of sources such as Bluetooth-enabled beacons located on lampposts, RFID tags, and mobile phone apps.
The navigation data and information about the user location is provided by Bing Maps and Bing website. Developers are also writing apps to help blind people perform a variety of task such as pressing the pedestrian crossing button in advance or using their cellphones as camera to scan barcodes in supermarkets and audible inform the user where the product is located.
According to Microsoft's director of Enterprise Strategy at Microsoft Asia, Amos Miller (himself registered blind), "We have built a means to help people create a mental map in real time by painting a picture of the world through sound, similarly to how a lighthouse guides with light, we can remove much of the fear of new journeys and improve those which people are already familiar with."
To demonstrate this innovative technology and show how it helps users become more independent, Future Cities Catapult has produced many videos. The trail went well, but as with all things, there are a number of challenges to getting a country wide rollout and that is getting local authorities and other organizations on board. But, it's a good start to getting cities to become smarter for all citizens.