In March 2018, Microsoft released Soundscape — a free iOS app that uses 3D audio to help visually impaired people create a mental map of what is around. The app works by allowing users to set an audio “beacon” (the destination). Once that is done, a rhythmic “thump” sound will come from the direction where the destination is located. As the user walks, the app calls out intersections and places of interest. The voice will come from the direction of what is in their surroundings, so if a store is on the right, the voice announcing the store will be heard on the right side.
I have always enjoyed exploring new places – finding a new café, going to friends’ houses, or going for random walks. However, I don’t do this as often as I would like because the lack of context means that navigating unfamiliar environments becomes too stressful to be enjoyable. Despite the obstacles, I still love exploring new places. Therefore, I am always on the lookout for apps that make navigating unfamiliar places easier. Over the last week, I explored Washington, DC with Soundscape. I used it for a familiar route (walking from the bus stop to work) and a new route (finding a coffee shop a few blocks from work). Here’s my experience.
The app’s home screen is very intuitive. At the top, there is a Menu button that includes settings, help and tutorials, the ability to control the type of information the app calls out as the user walks, and the ability to add reference points. Then, it has a “call outs on” button that controls whether the app announces intersections and other points of interest when walking. This is useful to quickly turn call outs on or off in the middle of a route. The next button is called “set beacon” (the chosen destination). At the bottom of the screen, there are three useful buttons that help give context while walking: “my location” (reveals the user’s current location as well as the direction he’s walking in), “ahead of me” (announces five points of interest ahead), and “around me” (announces one point of interest in each direction, like a 360 degree sweep).
Getting to work with Soundscape
For my first run with the app, I used it to get to work. Since I already knew the environment fairly well, I could compare what the app was telling me with my existing knowledge of my surroundings.
As soon as I got off the bus, I used the “my location” feature. It told me what street I was on, what direction I was facing, what the closest intersection was, and where that intersection was located relative to my location. All the information was correct. However, I did notice that I had to hold the phone exactly in front of my chest. If the phone was tilted even slightly to the side, the app would say I was walking along the wrong street, which could be confusing when using the app in a new environment where I didn’t already know what street I was on. Also, while Soundscape told me what the closest intersection was, it would be useful to know which intersection was to the right and which was to the left. This would give more context and allow me to decide which of the two intersections I needed to walk toward.
Once I figured out exactly where I was, I used the “set beacon” button to tell Soundscape where I was going. This was fairly easy, but the search feature seems to be missing a lot of information (this is caused by the map source the app uses). When I typed my office building, nothing came up. I started typing the address instead, but I got “no results.” However, when I pressed the search button, the address did appear, so I was able to set it as a beacon. If I hadn’t pressed the search button even when Soundscape was saying there were no results, I wouldn’t have known that my work address was in the database. As soon as I said the beacon, Soundscape began playing a constant rhythmic sound that came from the direction where the destination was located. However, I couldn’t really tell where the sound was coming from. Additionally, I like to be hyper-aware of my surroundings when I walk by myself, and the constant sound was making me nervous. Thankfully, there is an option to mute the beacon, which is how I proceeded with the rest of my route.
Even with the beacon muted, the app still called out businesses and points of interest I was passing (I didn’t know I worked so close to the Embassy of Papua New Guinea!). If a business was on the left, I would hear it through my left ear, and if it was to the right, the voice announcing it would come from my right. This feature is great. A GPS can give me directions from point A to point B, but it wouldn’t tell me, without looking at the map, that there is, for example, a bakery on the way that I may be interested in going to. It is frustrating to potentially pass places I may be interested in every day without knowing they are so close. Additionally, the app periodically told me how far away my destination was.
Soundscape also called out intersections, which was the most useful feature for me. When an intersection was approaching, the app told me what street was ahead, what street I would be walking on if I turned right or left, and what the intersection was. For example, when I was walking along N Street and approaching Connecticut Avenue, Soundscape told me that N Street continued ahead, and that I would be turning onto Connecticut Avenue if I turned to the right or to the left. While other GPS apps for the blind have a similar feature, most of these are expensive. Also, as far as I know, they do not tell me as much information – most just say the name of the two streets and whether it’s a two-way road. This feature was incredibly helpful because it was almost like being able to read street signs. When I walk with Google Maps or other normal GPS apps, it can be very stressful to only know the general direction the GPS wants me to go and how far the destination is. If I make a wrong turn with the GPS, it will eventually re-route, but it won’t tell me what street I am at after the wrong turn. With Soundscape’s intersection call out feature, I can stay oriented and feel more confident about retracing my steps to get back on track.
After my first route, I decided to play with the settings a bit. One thing I noticed was that Soundscape did not call out many businesses, and it did not mention a few bus stops that are along my route to work. These are things I would want to know about if I was walking along an unfamiliar street. Therefore, I went to “menu”, and looked at the “manage call outs” setting. To my surprise, I had all call outs turned on, which meant there was no way to increase the amount of information the app gave me as I was walking. Microsoft does explain in their website that the app is “designed not to be too chatty.” However, it would be nice to have the option to get as many call outs as possible or to get less information. When I am in a new environment, I want to know as much about my surroundings as possible – there may be a business or attraction nearby that I may be interested in but wouldn’t even know it was there if the app did not announce it.
As I was walking, I also noticed that Soundscape told me how far my destination was in yards, which is a meaningless measurement for me. I went into settings to try to change this, but the only other option was meters – also a measuring unit that I am not very familiar with. It would be incredibly helpful to have distances announced in feet or miles.
Finding a Coffee Shop
After using Soundscape to get to work, I used it to go to an unfamiliar location. This would allow me to see if the app made navigation easier even when I didn’t already know my surroundings extremely well. Since Microsoft says that the app can be used with other GPS apps, I used Google Maps to give me turn by turn directions. Unfortunately, this didn’t really work, because sometimes Soundscape and Google wanted to talk to me at the same time, which made it difficult to get all the information I needed from both apps. Other than that, using the app worked just as well in an unfamiliar environment. Intersection callouts were even more helpful in a new route, because they allowed me to constantly be aware of where I was. One useful feature for unfamiliar routes was the ability to set “points of interest.” These are addresses or businesses that Soundscape will call out if they are near where I am walking. It is useful to know that I am passing “point A”, which I have been to before, instead of just following the GPS, which only tells me that I need to go straight without contextual information that would help me be more confident about where I am going by being aware of those familiar references.
Overall, Soundscape is a very useful app that helps me stay oriented as I am walking. Having Soundscape call out intersections and points of interest makes walking a much richer experience by allowing me to know exactly where I am all the time, and by telling me what is around (I could miss so many interesting shops and businesses nearby if I just get directions to my final destination with a GPS). However, I did not find the 3d audio feature as useful, even though the main purpose of the app is to provide a 3D map through sound. While it was nice to know when points of interest were to the right or to the left, Soundscape could not tell me about points ahead or behind me through 3d sound. It could say a point was ahead by having the voice say “point A ahead”, but not by having the voice come from that direction. Therefore, the ability to provide information by having people hear sounds from different directions is limited and cannot imitate the experience of looking at an actual map. Additionally, it would be helpful if the search feature to set a beacon was more accurate, and if there was a way to ensure the app calls out more points of interest. Finally, turn by turn directions are still very useful when navigating to a new location, so it was frustrating (but predictable) that Soundscape and the GPS did not work together very well. If soundscape was integrated into a GPS, I would have my ideal combination! Overall, Soundscape is definitely an app I am keeping on my phone. I love the security of knowing exactly where I am as I am walking, and the ability to know what interesting places are around me — just as other people can read the signs as they walk. These features help me be much more confident as I travel on my own, and make it easier to explore the world around me.