Microsoft Soundscape: Lighting up the world with sound


By Amos Miller, Product Strategist, Microsoft AI + Research

Image of Alex and Maia crossing a busy intersection in downtown San Francisco. Maia is using Soundscape which has given her information about the layout of the intersection in 3D audio

Alex and Maia crossing a busy intersection in downtown San Francisco. Maia is using Soundscape which has given her information about the layout of the intersection in 3D audio.

A few years ago, when my daughter was only 5, we walked down the street after going to see a play at the Angel Theatre in London, looking for a place to get a bite. Dad and Kiddo, a normal setting. Kiddo had to do all the seeing because I am blind, and we never visited that area before, but soon enough we could smell pizza and locate the restaurant. It occurred to me, being a technologist at heart, that this experience was a little more intense than I would have liked, yet adding technology would have interfered with our experience.

Can we find a way to enhance one’s perception of their surroundings, enriching their awareness, and yet allow me to maintain my 120 percent attention on the experience I am having out and about with my kiddo? That’s the question that led us to wide ranging research and that more recently resulted in our first debut of the Microsoft Soundscape app that we launched at the start of March. The app runs on an iPhone,and using stereo headsets provides a three-dimensional audio image of the space around you as you walk.

The community has been extremely generous with some great feedback ever since we launched, and I wanted to share some of the key updates we’ve been working on based on that feedback.

Placing an audio beacon on an address
Instead of providing directions to a destination, Soundscape allows you to place a virtual audio beacon on the building or place you are heading to, and as you walk you can hear its location, so you can make your way to it. This is particularly helpful when that location is away from the street or in a wide-open area such as a pedestrian only area or a university campus. Initially, you could only place a beacon on a nearby point of interest. We have now added the ability to place a beacon on any address as well which was very well received. When setting a beacon, you can hit the “Search” button, and enter an address of your choice. Note, that you’ll need to hit Search again to refresh the list of possible addresses.

We have heard many and varied scenarios that folks want to use the beacon in, so stay tuned for more on this front.

Repeating and reviewing Soundscape callouts
We consider a job done well when, as a user, you have Soundscape running in the background and can choose what to pay attention to, i.e., so that walking down the street you can daydream, perhaps listen to a podcast, or talk with a friend. However, that means you may on occasion hear a callout that draws your attention and you may want to repeat it, or even set it as an audio beacon so you can walk over to that location. Soundscape will now display a history of callouts on the lower half of the screen. By default, that list is collapsed. You can expand the list and page through it to preview the callouts and act on them.

Using Soundscape in a vehicle
Most of our focus has been on using Soundscape while walking, however, many told us they value its use while in a car, bus or train. We have been doing some work to improve that experience, ensuring that you don’t get overwhelmed with callouts, yet have a good mental model of where you are and of key landmarks. And if you place a beacon on your destination while on a bus, you can get progress callouts as you get nearer. We continue to get feedback and will iterate on this scenario to get the balance right.

And the latest! U.S. voices
Yes, our wonderful British voice for Soundscape does have its fan base, however, many folks found her a little hard to understand. In our latest update you will find that you can now download alternative voices including male and female U.S. voices for Soundscape. Please note that the voice files can only be downloaded while you are on a WiFi connection.

Feedback and Engagement
We know that Soundscape represents a new concept of using sound in 3D to experience a space. To get this right we are eager to ensure we continue to engage the community. We will continue to update this blog to keep everyone informed on what we are working on and to ensure you have a way to communicate with us. soundscapefeed@microsoft.com gets to our inboxes directly and we look at every comment we receive.

We’ve also just set up a Facebook page which you can access at: https://www.facebook.com/microsoftsoundscape/ and don’t forget to visit our website at https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/research/product/soundscape/ where we have added a whole new section called "Tips and Tutorials" to help you get the most from Soundscape. And, please do let us know if there are other ways you feel might be easier to establish a constructive dialogue. We’d love to hear your ideas.

Finally, we look forward to connecting with many of you at the upcoming conventions in the U.S. We will have in-depth sessions both at the American Council of the Blind and National Federation of the Blind conventions, where you can learn all about our work, and how to use Soundscape like a pro.

Any questions, comments, and thoughts, just shout: soundscapefeed@microsoft.com

Thank you,
Amos and our amazing Soundscape team


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