While nothing can replace the companionship of a guide dog, technology can help make treks through busy cities a lot less stressful and more enjoyable for the visually impaired. Microsoft, for one, is currently testing a new headset (developed with help from UK charity Guide Dogs) that uses 3D soundscape technology to guide its users with audio cues along the way. That bone-conducting headset can’t work alone, though: it needs to be connected to a smartphone, as well as to receive information from Bluetooth and WiFi beacons placed in intervals throughout the roads users take. For its pilot program, Microsoft attached makeshift beacons on neighborhood objects in a London suburb, where its first testers are giving it a spin. When company news writer Jennifer Warnick tried it out while blindfolded, she found herself so efficient in getting around with only sounds to guide her, that she felt like a “dry-land dolphin.”
According to her detailed report on the experiment, the beacons would constantly send audio cues that sound like the galloping coconut noise from Monty Python to ensure her she’s taking the right way. She also reported hearing other sounds, such as sonar pings to warn her if she’s veering too close to curbs, as well as turn-by-turn voice directions, telling her how far she still has to walk to certain establishments, or if the bus she’s waiting for is approaching. It’ll obviously take a ton of effort bringing the headset to market, seeing as more permanent beacons will need to be installed everywhere. Hopefully, the company finds a way to bring the system to other places, for the sake of all the blind folks who’d love to be more independent.