Microsoft's new Soundscape app helps the visually impaired navigate their surroundings

In recent years, Microsoft has worked on a number of projects to assist people with visual impairments. Those have taken the form of everything from helping visually impaired kids learn to code to developing a novel way for visually impaired users to explore VR environments. Now Microsoft has launched Soundscape, an accessibility project meant to help people who are blind or have low vision navigate the world.

Available as a free iPhone app in the U.S. and the UK, Soundscape uses 3D audio to help users to better understand their surroundings. As you walk around, Soundscape will call out points of interest around you using three basic modes. "My location" will describe your current location and directions you're facing, "Around me" will call out nearby points of interest in each cardinal direction, and "Ahead of me" will describe points of interest in front of you. You can also use Soundscape to drop audio beacons at specific points of interest, and you'll be able to hear it as you move around. Microsoft explains:

Microsoft's technology enables you to set audio beacons at familiar destinations and landmarks, and then use 3D audio cues to improve your ambient awareness as you make your way to the destination. By simply connecting a stereo headset, you can explore the outdoor world with more independence. With 3D audio, the sounds are perceived as coming from the point of interest, so the user can build a mental image of what's around from the acoustic environment – the soundscape – of sounds in the environment and those from the Soundscape app.

Soundscape isn't meant to replace using a dog or a cane for object avoidance. Rather, the app is meant to complement them by giving users a more robust description of what is around them.

According to Microsoft, Soundscape was born out of a project that began in 2014 that took advantage of bone-conducting headsets, Windows Phones, and physical beacons. The experience the app presents is obviously very different, but it serves a similar purpose.

Soundscape can run in the background as you use other apps, which means users could presumably pair it with Microsoft's Seeing AI app as well. If you'd like to give it a shot, you can grab Soundscape now for free at the App Store.

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