Microsoft is revamping its headphones for the visually impaired to make it easier to traverse urban environments. The device, which provides audio prompts and directional clues with a help of a Bluetooth-connected smartphone, has been redesigned to sit over the ears. Wearers can also now use voice commands or a connected remote to request more information about their surroundings or play back audio they’ve just heard.
These experimental headphones are part of an initiative called Cities Unlocked, which uses technology to aid the lives of those with sight loss. It started last year with bone-conducting in-ear headphones in a trial restricted to the UK. Such design did allow wearers to hold conversations without the headset’s audio drowning out nearby voices, but they mostly functioned through Microsoft software and audio clicks to help guide wearers in the right direction.
The new over-the-ears headphones let in environment noises while still retaining the original headset’s “3D soundscape” effect.In comparison, the new over-the-ears headphones let in environment noises while still retaining the original headset’s “3D soundscape” effect that takes into account which direction the wearer is facing and the direction of incoming sound.
“After phase one last year we started to think deeply about how we can empower people to be more independent, more mobile, and act in much the same way as a sighted person would do,” Jarnail Chudge, Microsoft’s project lead for the Cities Unlocked program, told the Irish Examiner.
The Cities Unlocked initiative was founded in 2011 as a partnership between Microsoft and UK-based charity Guide Dogs. Microsoft began investing its resources after Amos Miller, a visually impaired executive, became a Guide Dogs board member and brought the idea to the attention of current CEO Satya Nadella, who at that time was the chairman of a disability group inside Microsoft and head of the company’s cloud division.