This clever headset creates 3D sound maps for the blind, but isn’t as cute as a guide dog

microsoft 3d sound mapping headset for the blind
Microsoft has been working on developing a headset which will create a sound map of a city, to help blind and partially sighted people better navigate through their surroundings. It’s part of a project called Cities Unlocked, where Microsoft has teamed up a wide variety of other companies, including the Guide Dogs for the Blind charity in the UK, and wearable tech specialists AfterShokz.

Here’s how it works. The headset doesn’t cover your ears, but uses bone-conducting audio to ensure you’re always aware of your surroundings. Once it is paired with a Windows Phone mobile device, it picks up signals from Bluetooth beacons spread around the city, and creates a 3D audio map using a combination of clicks, beeps, and verbal descriptions.

The sound is directional and alters in pitch and tone, so it can be used to lead someone to their destination, much like a digital guide dog. Because some of the audio map is generated using Bing and Google maps, it can provide contextual information along the way, including street names, points of interest, public transport locations, shops, and even details on road works. The headset appears to be a modified version of Aftershokz Bluez headphones, and has GPS, an accelerometer, and a gyroscope inside, so it knows which way the wearer is facing, and if they turn their head.

Currently only a prototype, the headset is being paired with a Lumia 930 and Lumia 1520 for tests, which have been taking place along a specially designed route between London and nearby city Reading. According to research, there are 180,000 people with sight loss in the UK who find it too stressful to leave their homes. The Cities Unlocked project wants to change that using its augmented reality headset, and in these early tests 62 percent of wearers felt safer, and more confident when wearing it. It’s also hoped the headset will increase spontaneity, independence, and mobility.

Microsoft’s tech won’t replace the hard-working guide dog, or even a cane, but it has potential to enrich people’s lives. One volunteer working on the project told a local newspaper, “There are things the technology can’t do, like tell me when there is traffic coming, so I would keep my dog for those purposes, but knowing that there is a post box coming up, or that there is a bank nearby is very helpful.”

It’s still early days for Cities Unlocked, and before the headset can be used widely, our cities need to become smarter. For now, it’s a fascinating glimpse into how wearable technology, Bluetooth beacons, and smartphones can help improve lives when used together.

Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: 1-handed drone control, a pot that stirs itself

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!

Everything we know about 'Anthem', including new details on Javelin classes

BioWare announced an upcoming action role-playing game called 'Anthem' at EA Play 2017. Here's everything we know about the game so far, including gameplay, DLC, and when you'll be able to play it.

The best free-to-play games you can play right now

Believe it or not, free-to-play games have evolved into engaging, enjoyable experiences. Here are a few of our favorites that you can play right now, including Warframe and the perennially-popular League of Legends.
Home Theater

Don't wake the baby! How to connect headphones to a TV

Do you need to connect a pair of headphones to your TV? Our handy guide will show you how to hook up your headphones in a variety of ways, whether you're using wired headphones, wireless headphones, or gaming headsets.

Here's a look at what's inside Fossil's Pop-up Shop in New York

Fossil has released its first-ever smartwatch featuring Qualcomm's Snapdragon Wear 3100. The Fossil Sport comes packed with a heart rate monitor, built-in GPS, NFC, and Google's latest version of Wear OS. Here's everything you need to know.

Hublot’s newest luxury watch costs $25,000, and you can only pay in Bitcoin

The Hublot Big Bang Meca-10 P2P is the latest luxury timepiece from the watch brand, and is a special limited edition made to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Bitcoin. Eager buyers must use the cryptocurrency to buy one.

The world’s first smartglasses showrooms open in Brooklyn and Toronto

Canadian startup North is hoping smartglasses will be the next big wearable. After announcing its new Focals smartglasses in October, the company opened product showrooms in Brooklyn and Toronto.

Cyber Monday 2018: When it takes place and where to find the best deals

Cyber Monday is still a ways off, but it's never too early to start planning ahead. With so many different deals to choose from during one of the biggest shopping holidays of the year, going in with a little know-how makes all the…

The best Apple Watch deals for November 2018

The Apple Watch has surged to prominence in recent years. If you're in the market for an iOS wearable, we've sniffed out the best Apple Watch deals available right now for all three models of this great smartwatch.

Make some time for the best smartwatch deals for November 2018

Smartwatches make your life easier by sending alerts right on your wrist. Many also provide fitness-tracking features. So if you're ready to take the plunge into wearables and want to save money, read on for the best smartwatch deals.

Here are the best Apple Watch and Fitbit Versa deals for Black Friday

Apple products are the most sought-after products for Black Friday, the leaked preview ads show what discounts retailers will have for the Apple Watch Series 3 and other smartwatches, such as the Fitbit Versa, this holiday season.

Music to our ears: Spotify at long last arrives on the Apple Watch

Spotify subscribers are now able to jam out to their favorite tunes on their favorite workout accessory, as the Swedish streaming service has finally released its official Apple Watch app.

Check out 25 of the best Wear OS apps for your smartwatch

Looking for some ways to spruce up that new Android smartwatch of yours? Here are the best Wear OS apps to download and use with any Android smartwatch, including a few specially enhanced for Wear OS 2.0.
Health & Fitness

Withings new Pulse HR is a customizable, connected fitness tracker

Inspired by Withings first ever fitness tracker the Pulse, the new Pulse HR is updated with the latest in fitness tracker technology including smart notifications, 24/7 heart rate tracking, and more.