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Microsoft blinded me for an hour, turned my ears into eyes, and blew my mind

The streets of any big city can be a frustrating, unnerving, and sometimes frightening. Now, imagine navigating them when you’re visually impaired. The thing is, you probably wouldn’t have to imagine it at all. Chances are, if you were blind, you might not hit the streets at all. Tens of thousands of blind people never leave their homes due to anxiety. Microsoft, in coordination with Guide Dogs for the Blind and the Future Cities initiative, is working on an answer to the problem of making the world more inclusive.

At its most basic, it’s a piece of wearable tech that will help bring the world to life for blind people, while making it easier and safer to get around. Look a little deeper, and it’s a step towards making the smart city of the future a reality, using technology that’s just as relevant and helpful for sighted people.

Related: Smart City: How trash cans, street lights, and cars connect

To understand the benefits, I got a demonstration of the project — called Cities Unlocked — at Microsoft’s offices in London. Of course, to truly grasp how important the new technology is, I’d have to experience what it’s like to walk around the city as a blind person first.

Isolated, disorientated, and terrified

I put on my blackout mask, and was handed a white stick. I was outside Microsoft’s offices near Victoria Station. A street food festival assaulted my olfactory senses, and a building project made hearing normal conversation a challenge. Plunged into darkness, my other senses were amplified, and quickly overwhelmed me. Luckily, I had Jenny Cook from Guide Dogs holding my arm, and guiding me down the street. I waved my stick in front of me, but it felt arbitrary, like a last minute warning system to prevent me from causing chaos.

It talks to the city around it to provide guidance and information to the wearer.

In my darkened world, I thought I’d walked farther than I had, and also discovered that my senses fooled me into thinking I’d turned a corner — but I’d actually walked in a straight line. It was isolating, disorientating, and terrifying.

For the next stage, I put on Microsoft’s headset. It’s a modified version of an AfterShoks bone-conducting set of headphones, with added Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS, plus an Arduino board making it all work together. The idea is, it talks to the city around it to provide guidance and information to the wearer. This works using a combination of all these connectivity options, plus Bluetooth beacon technology, and mapping software — in this case, Bing Maps.

Still blindfolded, equipped with my stick, and guided by Jenny; the headset was given a destination and I was off in a new direction. It keeps you pointing the right way with a continuous clippety-clop sound. At first, because the headset doesn’t cover your ears, it’s not immediately obvious the sound isn’t in the real world. It takes a while to get used to, and to understand what it means.

The audio is actually directional, so if you turn your head, the sound “moves” to keep you heading the right way. This was relatively familiar, and if you’ve used Google Maps on Google Glass, then it’s the same kind of thing just without any visuals. The sound is always there, and is surprisingly comforting.

Bluetooth beacons to guide you

The really cool part came when the device said in my left ear, “Cash machine 5 meters to the left.” I stopped in my tracks, lifted my mask and sure enough, the cash machine was right there. Not vaguely in that direction, but precisely. This is a big deal when lifting up a mask to check isn’t an option. Continuing on, it quickly told me about a landmark on my right. In the future, it will provide some commentary on the building’s history, and other local information too. Beyond this, it’ll talk about shops, street names, where the postbox is, and where it’s safe to cross the road.

The Cities Unlocked headset, and the smart city on which it depends, is equally as compelling for those of us who can see.

The cash machine was equipped with a Bluetooth beacon, while the local information was pulled from Bing Maps, and GPS with Wi-Fi support used for guidance. The combined effect was surprising. It certainly opened up the world, and made me feel more secure, but it was clear you’d need practice with the device before it became part of life. The clippety-clop audio would definitely benefit from a period of adjustment.

After my demo, I chatted to Jen Bottom, a 26-year old visually impaired person working with Microsoft on the project. She talked about the device’s granular detail being incredibly helpful, and also touched on its precision, pointing out how a turn-by-turn guidance app just isn’t accurate enough to be relied upon. How? It’s not always very good at identifying street crossings, or letting the person know there’s a busy main road in between you and the direction it wants you to travel. The Cities Unlocked headset overcomes those problems, and Jen liked the reassurance of the audio, because it proved everything was working correctly.

She was also a fan of the wearable headset. It eliminated the need to take out her phone, something she wasn’t comfortable doing on a busy city street. The headset also neatly overcame the need for her to juggle the phone, a stick, the leash for her guide dog, or all three at the same time. The headset isn’t designed to replace any of these things, but to complement them.

The Cities Unlocked headset, and the smart city on which it depends, is equally as compelling for those of us who can see. Ever wandered around an airport not knowing where things are? Or a train station with only minutes to spare before your train leaves? How about navigating a new city where you don’t speak the language? Cities Unlocked could solve all these problems.

Why isn’t it here now?

Very little about the actual device, or the technology it uses is groundbreaking. GPS, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth are all commonly used already, and they all work in cities across the world. Bluetooth headsets have been around for years, and arguably, the Microsoft headset doesn’t do much more than Google Glass. So why aren’t visually impaired people using one right now?

The answer is a depressingly familiar one. It’s to do with infrastructure and organization of the smart city. Beacon use isn’t widespread, GPS isn’t optimized enough for reliable inner city use, and the places where the tech really makes sense — public transport for example — aren’t set up for its use.

Concerning Microsoft’s long-term involvement in the project, Jarnail Chudge, a User Experience Architect for Microsoft, said the company was focused on the experience, about refining the way the technology worked for people, rather than building the necessary hardware. The existing headset is a prototype, but Microsoft has utilized Nokia’s design team to come up with a new version of the device.

Two to three years, if everything comes together

Unlike a physical consumer product, there’s no obvious launch date for the Cities Unlocked project. It’s dense, complicated, and relies on many different aspects coming together in harmony before we’re all using it to guide us round new places, whether we can see where we’re going or not. When can we expect it to launch?

Jenny Cook hopes for around two to three years before the project is at a stage where it can get a wide public release. Claire Mookerjee, the Cities Unlocked Project Leader, can’t offer a date, but does give a better idea of what’s involved before one can be truly estimated.

Cities-Unlocked_6556

“I think for a city-wide deployment of beacons at this level,” she told me. “It will take city administrators, transport providers and local councils to really understand the use-cases and applications, to understand and be inspired by the value they can generate.”

Related: No one has found a convincing way to sell the smart home

That’s exactly what Microsoft’s clever headset can do. It shows, on a very personal level, how making a city smart can improve the quality of life for people who’re already at a disadvantage, and naturally intimidated by chaotic modern cities. Shifting the focus away from advertising, and towards the human benefits of smart cities, could prompt all these cogs to work together, and potentially make the two to three year goal not only possible, but easily achievable.