Mapping the world with sound

Microsoft Soundscape encourages you to wander. Unlike step-by-step navigation tools, the app never tells you where to go or what to do. In the same way the smell of baking bread might help you discover a nearby café, it offers little insights into your surroundings. What you do with those insights is up to you.

Soundscape was built to empower people, particularly those with blindness or low vision. The app aims to provide enough detail for users to relate to their environment in a new and engaging way, without requiring them to focus solely on the information they hear.

Amos Miller, a product strategist at Microsoft, was motivated to create the app after becoming a father. Miller, who lives with sight loss, wanted a tool that would increase his independence without distracting him from the experience of spending time with his daughter.

[Photo description: Amos Miller, his daughter, Oren, and his service dog, Trevor, stroll down a quiet sidewalk in Seattle, passing a brick building painted maroon and black.]

The app uses 3D sound to bring a fresh perspective to familiar places and help you explore new locations with ease. Through spatial audio, it points out locations of interest around or ahead of you, tells you in what direction you’re travelling, or guides you toward a specific address.

If people feel present and connected to the space they are in, and their attention isn’t drawn away, they will have a better experience.

Each feature of Soundscape prioritises the concept of presence. For example, you don’t have to think about which direction is “right” or “left”, because the sounds originate from a specific location. This technique also reduces the amount of audio required to paint a picture of your environment. The app demands as little attention as possible, leaving you to savour the moment and the journey.

[Photo description: Amos and Oren Miller kayak on Lake Union in Seattle. Taken from a high vantage point, the photo shows the length of the bright blue two-seat kayak. Their yellow paddles contrast with the dark water.]

This approach is most apparent with Soundscape’s Beacon feature. Set the virtual audio Beacon on a particular location and a continuous rhythmic sound emanates from the direction of the destination. When you travel directly toward the Beacon, a higher-pitched audio cue sounds. The subtle tone can run in the background while you use other apps or mobility aids.

If you are contemplating going to the park, and that is an enjoyable experience for you, you are more likely to do it. If there is no joy to the effort, people may choose not to go out.

Miller regularly uses the app while commuting or spending time with his family. In some cases it enhances routine experiences, such as providing cues that his bus ride to work is almost complete. In others, it makes new experiences possible. While kayaking on Lake Washington, Miller set a Beacon on a small island in the lake. By following the audio cues and having his daughter alert him to nearby boats, he was able to row the kayak directly to the island without any difficulty.

[Photo description: Miller and his daughter kayak toward the lake shore. The photo is taken from behind and shows sunlight reflecting off of small waves in the water. Along the shore ahead of the kayak there are boats in a marina and multistory buildings interspersed with trees.]

Soundscape empowered him to take on a new activity with confidence, while staying present in the moment with his daughter. As he had hoped, there was joy in the effort.