For the visually impaired, the world can be a difficult and dangerous place to navigate. Sure, a blind person can take advantage of cognitive tricks, such as memorizing the number of steps it takes to get from point A to point B, or utilize tools such as a cane or guide dog. But until now, there have been no tools available to help expedite or enrich a visually impaired person's travel experience.
For example, let's say that you're a blind person and you want to visit a friend at their home. You would need to learn and memorize the directions ahead of time, researching the safe routes available as well as any potential hazards or detours you might face along the way. Even with the help of a guide dog, a white cane, and a GPS-enabled smartphone, it would be hazardous to begin your adventure without knowing the obstacles you might face. And forget about learning about other attractions or points of interest you might pass along the way.
But all of that might soon change with the introduction of a new high-tech headset from Microsoft. The headset uses a smartphone and navigational aids to not only help a visually impaired person find his way, but also to describe other potential hazards (like low-hanging trees,) or attractions (like a decent coffee shop,) along the way. It’s part of a project called Cities Unlocked, for which Microsoft has teamed up with a variety of other companies, including the Guide Dogs for the Blind charity in the U.K., and wearable tech specialists AfterShokz. The project is the brain child of Amos Miller, a Microsoft employee who has been blind since a genetic disorder claimed his eyesight in his 20s. Miller wanted to find a way to use the technology he loved to assist and enrich his life and that of others with visual impairments.
Thus the idea for the new headset was born. Here's how it works:
The headset uses bone-conducting audio, meaning that it doesn't cover the ears because that would make it difficult for the wearer to hear traffic noises or carry on a conversation. Rather, it rests just in front of the ear and it uses signals from Bluetooth beacons to transmit cues into a series of clicks, beeps, and verbal communications that the user can hear.
This video gives a better idea of how it works:
Microsoft's headset is only in its prototype stage and there are obviously still a number of kinks to work out — like ensuring that the gadgets can access Bluetooth and WiFi transmission along a specified route. But for now, it offers a glimpse into a world where technology can be used to help a blind person gain confidence — and freedom — when traveling.
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