When accessible technologies for the blind started to become more of a fixture in the global IT industry, blind people all over the world, myself included, became more expectant about what the next best gadget or app might be. We tend to be the most excited when these innovations have something to do with promoting independence and generally empowering the blind. On the flip side, that eagerness is matched with the same level of disappointment when these applications are not available in our respective locations. This is exactly how I felt upon first hearing about Microsoft Soundscape. The concept excited me, but I immediately felt let down when I found out that as of today, the app is only available in the US, UK, and Australia.
I first heard about Microsoft Soundscape a few years back. I knew then that it was not available here in the Philippines, so I calmed my excitement and completely forgot about it. Flash forward to today when I received a project assignment that reminded me of the app.
I was recently invited to participate in the “where in the world” challenge hosted by Steven Abrams of Microsoft. At first I was thrilled, but my excitement quickly faded when I found out that after all this time, the Soundscape app is still unavailable in my country. Even though I was unable to participate in the challenge, I still explored the features of the app. I read articles and watched YouTube videos of people doing a demo of this amazing platform.
To give an overview of this app to people like me who don’t yet have access, here are the amazing capabilities of Microsoft Soundscape:
- The platform features a map delivered in 3D sound.
- The Microsoft Research Team describes it as a project that explores the use of innovative audio-based technology to enable people, particularly those with blindness or low vision, to build a richer awareness of their surroundings, thus becoming more confident and empowered to get around. Unlike step-by-step navigation apps, Soundscape uses 3D audio cues to enrich ambient awareness and provide a new way to relate to the environment.
- The app has an audio beacon that sets the destination, helping you listen through headphones to track where you are going. Put the phone away and just walk– Soundscape will call out roads and intersections, putting you in control of how you want to get there.
- The app offers three modes: ‘locate’ tells you where you are, ‘around me’ calls out four points of interest around you and ‘ahead of me’ provides the names of five landmarks in front of you.
- Soundscape can help reduce levels of stress and anxiety, giving people with sight loss more confidence when they’re out and about in an urban environment.
- This app takes a little bit of practice and getting used to and is not meant to replace the use of guide dogs and white canes. It is more of a supportive program that helps visually impaired people discover new places and enrich the experience with familiar places.
- This app uses sound to guide you toward your destination in a more natural way than step-by-step instructions, allowing you to move through spaces and places on your own terms.
Blind and low vision people in first world countries are lucky to enjoy this innovation. This piqued my interest as to how this tool might work in third world countries like the Philippines and how it would impact the spatial orientation and mobility of the blind.
Take me for example. I don’t normally use a cane and definitely not a guide dog. Not because I don’t want to, but more because this is not the norm for blind people in the Philippines. One major reason for this is that our safety would be at risk if we tried to explore the outdoors on our own. The current situation on the streets and highways here in the Philippines is far from ideal or favorable for people with disabilities in general. We are trying to reach a point where this is no longer an issue. I’m curious if the availability of these programs will make it easier for us to get there.
Independence when it comes to travelling and navigating is something that is yet to be achieved for blind people in the Philippines. It may take a while considering that we are a third world country, but this left me wondering – what if apps like Microsoft Soundscape really do become available one day? It will make a big impact for sure, and I’m more than positive that these innovations might signal the turning point in my country. At any rate, this type of technology can boost the confidence of blind people, reduce our anxiety, and eventually help us live better and more independent lives, and for that I am excited.