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access technology

Microsoft Soundscape is a new way to navigate

“What is overwhelming about being a blind traveler? It’s not always what people think.” LightHouse Director of Access Technology Erin Lauridsen is passionate about this point: “Obstacle avoidance is not the problem, we have a dog, a cane and our blindness skills for that, The gap is knowing where things are and being able to decide what’s of interest.”

In her daily work, Lauridsen often has to shake her head at technology that misses the mark, but today is different. Today, Microsoft unveils a new free app designed not just for blind people – but by blind people.

In the video below, Erin Lauridsen explains the design thinking behind Microsoft’s new app. Click here to download Soundscape from the US App Store.

Lauridsen is one of the design minds behind Soundscape, a new Microsoft product which aims to empower blind people to not just get where they’re going, but to explore and learn their environment actively.

Read more on the Microsoft Accessibility Blog

Hired last year to start LightHouse’s Access Technology department in San Francisco, Lauridsen has built up a research and design consulting shop that leverages the blind experience to help mainstream companies optimize their products. One day it may be face recognition; another day, it’s designing a more intuitive interface or an advancement in ergonomics. In all cases, though, designing with the blind in mind yields a more competitive product.

Last fall Microsoft approached Lauridsen’s team with a product built upon an ambitious concept: a navigation app not based on turn-by-turn directions, but on dynamic, proximity-based landmarks and 3D audio beacons.

For Lauridsen, an app that promoted spatial engagement instead of rigid instructions and prescribed routes was a breath of fresh air. “The idea of having spatial and directional information floating on top, and taking some of that process load off of the traveler, that was intriguing,” she says. The next step was to find out if this technology would work in practice.

Download Soundscape from the app store

Microsoft brought the idea to a small group at a meeting of LightHouse Labs, Lauridsen’s monthly blind-tech meetup at LightHouse’s Market Street headquarters. Each month, Labs provides a venue for companies and individuals in the blindness and accessibility sphere to explore product-market fit, compare notes on emerging tech and express passionate, at times controversial opinions. It was agreed that the next phase of research and design was to get Soundscape into the pockets of real users, to turn the app from a good idea into an invaluable tool.

Today, Soundscape launches in the US and UK app stores on iOS for iPhones, and with it Microsoft has introduced a new 3D audio experience crafted specifically for exploration.

Soundscape, Lauridsen says, offers freedom for blind users: “It takes out the assumption that you’re following a proscribed route, fills in the information access gap, and allows for discovery and exploration. It’s not oversimplified or over complicated, as so much tech ‘for’ us often is.”

An image of a phone showing the Microsoft Soundscape app reads: "Set a Beacon and make your way there. Heading somewhere? Place an audio beacon on your destination and Soundscape will keep you informed of its location and your surroundings along the way. Use Soundscape in conjunction with your way finding skills and even your favorite navigation app to find your way to your destination."

Featuring an unobtrusive, roaming narrator reading the names of businesses, intersections, and points of interest in stereo, Soundscape is much more like browsing a neighborhood than any audio navigator that has come before. The Around Me and Ahead of Me features allow for more focused “looking around,” and audible beacons can be set to guide users gently toward a destination with intuitive auditory cues.

For Lauridsen and her department, this early stage design work is equally as important in making products both elegant and useful. “Our network at LightHouse is considerable – we have blind engineers, blind architects, blind coders – and what we like to build is ‘of’ those people, not ‘for’ them.”

Over the winter, Lauridsen’s team began putting the app through its paces, quite literally, with a score of blind user testers taking the app up and down Market Street and through the neighborhoods of San Francisco. Taking their feedback and synthesizing it, and delivering it in a series of intense meetings with Microsoft’s developers, Soundscape began to feel ready.

“Inventors often want to design things for us to be safer; I get that, but that’s design from a fear point of view. Microsoft designed this product out of an enthusiasm for learning, exploring, and finding joy in your environment. That’s the kind of technology that we like to see.”


Meet Our New Access Technology Director, Erin Lauridsen

Building off the great work our tech trainers have been doing for years, we’re excited this month to announce the creation of a dedicated Access Technology Department at LightHouse, under the direction of our new team member, Erin Lauridsen.

“The launch of this department is a recognition of how central technology is to our lives as blind people,” says Lauridsen. “It really does affect every aspect of our lives—from cooking to voting to dating to moving around the streets. If technology comes into every part of that, we have to train blind people to really be savvy tech users and be able adapt to constant changes.”

Lauridsen feels the digital age is leveling the playing field for people who are blind or have low vision. With screen readers like VoiceOver, new and improved document scanners and apps that provide new services entirely, she thinks we have moved far beyond barriers posed by the inaccessible books and paper printouts of yesteryear.

Lauridsen grew up in rural Oregon, on the cusp of the technological boom. She remembers the leap she took in 7th grade, when she went from having a Perkins brailler and a paid staffer who transcribed all of her work to getting a Citizen Notebook Printer and a Braille ‘n Speak – and nothing was the same.

“For the first time I could turn in my own homework,” she says. “I had to learn all that technology mostly on my own because there weren’t other blind people around me. There weren’t teachers who knew it because a lot of it was very new. I got a computer with a screen reader and the internet in the late ‘90s. That was my first connection in a significant way to other blind people.”

So while technology provides a practical set of tools for everyday living, it can also be a starting point for widening personal horizons and reaching out and learning from a community of blind people all over the world. At its heart, Lauridsen feels, it’s about agency.

“If you give people access to technology they can access information, make their own choices and live their lives in better ways,” says Lauridsen.

But for the AT Department, it’s not just about the end user. The department also plays a key role in Silicon Valley as an accessibility gatekeeper — by bringing in major tech companies like Google, Uber, Lyft, AirBnB, Pinterest and Facebook for user testing and meetups, as well as working in-house with accessibility apps like Actiview and Be My Eyes through our budding startup accelerator programs.

As the head of the Access Tech department, Lauridsen will represent LightHouse in guiding the accessibility features for mainstream platforms and more specialized devices or “assistive technology,” as well as teaching our students how to use all of the above.

You can now schedule free weekday or weekend AT Training on Tuesdays from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. or Saturdays between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. The beauty of these trainings it that they’re one-on-one, so if the tech talk intimidates you, you can start slow. We have staff that can meet you where you’re at — maybe ease in with typing and go as far as learning how to building your own website with a screen reader. To sign up, contact Access Technology Coordinator Shen Kuan at skuan@lighthouse-sf.org or (415) 694-7312.

We are assembling a list of people interested in being part of UX testing. These opportunities respect testers’ time and knowledge with compensation. Opportunities vary on skill level, technology preference and personal interest. 

Communicate with Erin Lauridsen directly at elauridsen@lighthouse-sf.org or 415-694-7368 to get involved.