Cities Unlocked

The concept is simple, but rolling out the technology would take a major effort.

Even with perfect vision, the knot of packed traffic lanes, busy sidewalks, and road works around London's Victoria Station is a hot mess. For people with impaired sight, it must be a navigational and sensory nightmare. Microsoft is looking to solve that problem. Recently, I visited the company's London offices to test out an ambitious new navigation system for the sight-impaired. Still under development, this new system uses Bluetooth beacons to relay navigational information to users wearing headsets. This can both guide users in the right direction and provide them with local information to make their forays outdoors richer. The way it works is ingenious—but before I tried it, I was invited to experience what a busy city feels like for someone with no vision.

The short answer: it's pretty terrifying.  Blindfolded, with a cane and an assistant's elbow for guidance, I walked gingerly around the precinct outside Microsoft. Without sight to distract me, sounds seemed deafening. Every step was a cautious experiment, and each time the ground arrived under my foot it felt like only a provisional success. When I removed the blindfold I was shocked to find that, instead of wandering off into a void, we had walked a full circle. That sight-impaired people manage this sort of thing on a regular basis fills me with admiration.

The truth is, unfortunately, that they generally don't. According to my guide, a high-functioning unsighted person—someone with a demanding job, for example—typically only knows five or six routes outside their home. Learning one of these routes takes about a year. This leaves many visually impaired people largely housebound, diffident, and often unhappy. According to U.K. charity Guide Dogs (collaborating with Microsoft on this project), 43 percent of Britons with irreparable sight loss demonstrate depressive symptoms. Creating a navigation system for the sight-impaired is thus about far more than creating a lively interactive experience. It's about sawing through the bars of (justified) fear that keep visually impaired people penned in.

The headset. (Cities Unlocked)

There are navigation apps out there that can help, but they aren't usually created with visual impairment in mind. As explained by Jen Boulton, a visually impaired 26-year-old who helped test out Microsoft's headset, current apps fall tantalizingly short.

"Even if you bundle three or four apps together, it's quite a clunk-some experience," she says. "You can just about get from A to B, but they don't provide you with the level of granularity that a visually impaired person needs. You can be walking down a busy road, then the app might say 'turn right', but you can't find a crossing, or when you do it's not controlled.  If there's nobody around to help you, you have to wait for ages or backtrack. I find that even more frustrating than not having anything, because I'm so close to having what I need."

Microsoft's alternative is quite simple in conception, even if rolling it out would take a major effort. Sight-impaired users receive directions from a lightweight Bluetooth headset. This sits just above the ear on the jawbone, conducting sound to the inner ear via bone vibration. This form of transmission is vital so that users can still pick up the usual ambient aural information they use to navigate. These headsets receive information from Bluetooth transmitters, which relay directions to a chosen point entered orally into a smartphone by the user. As the user moves, the transmitter offers not just directions but useful information, such as the position of crosswalks, stores and even tourist attractions. A user can access this information via a button on the headset, or simply leave it running constantly. If they want further, more in-depth information on any of the places highlighted, they can tap and hold on their accompanying smartphones to hear a longer text.

Making navigating the city easier for the sight-impaired. (Cities Unlocked)

When I tried it out, what proved most transformative was the way the headset gave directions. As you move, it emits a light clip-clop sound, like a trotting horse. Turn away from the destination and the clip-clop sound gets quieter. Turn in the right direction and the volume goes up. When walking right towards the intended target, the headset emits a periodic beep to confirm you're on the right path.

The noise provides constant confirmation that you're going the right way and not about to walk into a road. This is obviously a huge confidence booster. As soon as I put the headset on (still blindfolded), I found my walking pace almost doubled and my shoulders started to un-hunch. The extra information the headset provided—it picked out Victoria Station, Westminster Cathedral, an ATM, and a place to buy sushi as I walked—was also very welcome, if potentially overwhelming for a first-timer.

The headset is clearly very useful, but there's a major obstacle in rolling the technology out: the amount of mapping and data gathering it requires is potentially huge. Much of the data is already out there, of course. Large grocery stores, for example, are already data-mapped for Internet pickers. But the device still requires a network through which local authorities, businesses, and community organizations can team up to share their data. Then they'd need someone to piece it together to make it genuinely seamless.

On top of all that, there are the Bluetooth beacons, which would have to be scattered widely. While they're only about the size of a beer bottle cap, they can't be much more than 30 feet apart. Thus far, beyond the streets around Microsoft headquarters, the headsets have been piloted only in the English city of Reading. So until businesses find some way to monetize and fund a network like this, it might remain restricted to small, experimental areas.

For now, given that Microsoft and Guide Dogs are still developing their project, this doesn't necessarily matter. But while no one should expect this system to arrive in their city next year, that doesn't mean it isn't the start of something transformative. Technology like this could radically broaden the access that the visually impaired have to the world around them, opening up their surroundings for discovery and exploration. No longer labyrinths which they have to laboriously learn, cities could become more welcoming places, where life for people without clear vision is easier, safer, and better.

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