New app paints picture for blind Aussies

Luke Costin
(Australian Associated Press)

 

When David Woodbridge gets off the train, he initially struggles to find the station exit.

That’s because as one of the 384,000 Australians with low or no vision, the NSW technology adviser’s mental map of where he is can change based on which train carriage he steps off.

At a railway station, Google Maps and other regular turn-by-turn navigation apps aren’t much help with their instructions based on street addresses.

But a new app Mr Woodbridge helped launch in Australia on Wednesday has helped solve an issue full-vision people take for granted.

The Soundscape app, developed by Microsoft with Vision Australia, delivers speech or sounds to help people with low or no vision know where they are and what’s around.

Mr Woodbridge, a VA access technology adviser, says he can drop markers at any location – including the steps at the Gosford station exit – and let artificial intelligence guide him.

Delivered in stereo sound through his bone conduction headphones, the cues can help the Central Coast man know immediately the direction he needs to walk.

“It’s adjunct to your normal turn-by-turn app, cane and my dog,” he told AAP.

“Being an app running on iOS, Microsoft can say yep we’ll tweak that or add a new feature.”

Soundscape has a mode that will quietly inform vision-impaired people what streets, shops or other points of interest they are walking past.

That helped one Vision Australia client learn he’d been walking by a small supermarket 100 metres from his home for 15 years, mobility assistant Carolina Canavezzi told AAP.

Microsoft Australia accessibility and disability lead David Masters says the idea came from a vision-impaired Microsoft developer four years ago and uses open source maps.

“Soundscape aims to give users a sense of where you are in space,” he told AAP.

“Particularly if it’s an unfamiliar space, it’ll help you understand what’s coming up on the journey.

“We have a very core mission about empowering people and it fits very much about our mission.”

Soundscape is available in the Australian version of Apple’s App Store.

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