Navigation by Sound
Most of us have the world around us laid out in great visual detail. We recognize landmarks, we navigate our worlds using them as guide posts, and use them as reference points when directing others to their destinations. The electronic version of this navigation system, perfected over millennia, is of course the GPS. What used to be a dedicated GPS device is now simply a feature on all hand-held communication devices. As these applications have evolved, they have gained the ability to warn us about hazards on the road ahead, guide us around traffic, and even tell us if any of our friends in the digital world are nearby. Where convenience and users unite, commerce cannot be far behind. So now we have GPS applications that tell us when we are approaching our favorite coffee shop and even display a coupon to try and entice us to make a stop. What a great edifice our world of visual objects has allowed us to build. But, what if this visual world was not available to us? That is indeed the reality for someone with limited vision or a visual impairment. Microsoft is attempting to replace the visual world with one made of sounds to aide navigation for those with visual challenges.
Microsoft has introduced a mobile phone application called Soundscapes that serves as a sound-guided GPS system. Using sound that is placed in three-dimensional space through stereo headphones, the app guides users through their landscape. Combination information from location and activity sensors on today’s mobile devices, the application places the user in their surroundings, tracks their movement, and guides them through audio cues. Users are also able to place beacons in space. For example, once you find your favorite hot dog stand, you could place an audio beacon to mark that spot and the app will be able to guide you back to the spot when you have your next hankering for a hot dog. Using layers of maps, information about commercial businesses and their locations, and a spatially realistic audio stream, the app serves as the audio equivalent of a visual map.