Wearable Tech World Feature Article
November 10, 2014

Microsoft's New Headset Brings Urban Navigation to the Blind

The thought of being in a strange city alone can be daunting enough to many, but toss in the added impact of blindness and suddenly the idea gets frightening enough for some to go check the locks on the house door again. But with around 39 million people facing this particular challenge every day, Microsoft is turning to the field of wearable technology to make an answer – and it may have just done so with a new headset.

A combination of 3D Audio systems, a bone conduction headset and a smartphone to drive it all, Microsoft's new system is ultimately capable of detecting previously placed beacons, which it can then use to create a kind of map. That map can be subsequently fed into the headset, a development that allows users to get a better handle on where exactly said user is. Since the headset uses bone conduction to deliver its audio feedback, users are still capable of hearing what's going on in the immediate area, making everything from horn signals to casual conversation perfectly audible.

The system is first calibrated with Kinect, which scans the head and face to improve the accuracy of the headset according to the user's own dimensions. A smartphone app allows for an easy way to make gestures to interact, and audio menus play the results of that interaction. A series of sounds—which makes the whole thing almost sound like a bat's echolocation systems—then helps control most every factor from direction faced to distance traveled.  From there, features allow the user to navigate to a desired point of interest, which can be selected from an available list.

Given that the lifetime cost of a guide dog, at last report, is around $80,000 total—this makes sense given things like food and veterinary care and all—the idea of a simple device replacing the guide dog is one that not only makes personal sense for many - but also economic sense. Consider further that, according to reports, around 90 percent of the visually impaired folks of the planet live in low-income areas and the idea of a low-cost solution that can be linked to a smartphone makes a clear case for itself. The product is currently being tested in the U.K., at last report, and given that current CEO Satya Nadella was reportedly the chairman of a disability group at Microsoft before his ascent to CEO, this is a development that seems pretty natural for the company.

The devices are still in the prototype stage, but early word suggests that said devices are actually quite effective when used in the field. The combination of high value, low cost, and the ability to work with devices that many of those visually impaired likely already have on hand works well, and cements Microsoft's ongoing commitment to wearable devices. If further improvements are made before release—a development that itself is pretty likely given that we're talking about a prototype device here—that can really only improve things from here.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi

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