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Consumer Lifestyle
Published: 13 Nov 2014

Microsoft's Urban Navigation Headset

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Cities Unlocked

Microsoft has unveiled a prototype headset that will guide visually impaired people around cities.

It can direct users along specified routes, find seats on public transport, or simply impart real-time contextual information such as bus times and local landmarks. The aim is to create urban "3D-soundscapes" to give partially sighted people the confidence to navigate independently.

Contextual information comes from users' smartphones and a network of Bluetooth beacons in the urban environment. Directional audio helps to orientate users towards relevant landmarks; sound is delivered via bone conduction, meaning the wearer can also hear ambient noise.

Eight trial users on a route between Reading and London in the UK said they felt more relaxed, aware of their location and surroundings, and enabled to be more spontaneous.

The prototype device is part of Cities Unlocked – a collaborative project between Microsoft, UK charity Guide Dogs, and the Future Cities Catapult, an arm's-length UK government technology body. They plan to partner with private and public organisations to expand the network of beacons and digitally 'tagged' objects throughout urban spaces worldwide.

The project's report, released last week, argues that harnessing emerging technology and bringing other senses into the design of urban spaces will deliver a "richer, fuller experience of the city" for people of all abilities.

From haptic Maps for the Blind to Smart Street Corners that provide citizens with environmental information and warnings, technology is being used in creative ways to make cities smarter, safer, and more inclusive. For more, see our report from Re.Work Cities 2013, and Beyond Wearables – part of our Post-Digital Macro Trend.

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