“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.
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.
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.”
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.”