Cities Unlocked

exploring the world using 3D Soundscapes
John Shelton, – Cities Unlocked Programme, Manager , Guide Dogs UK

Visionary – International Guide Dogs Federation magazine February 2015.


In 2013 Guide Dogs and Microsoft created a film called A Family Day Out to demonstrate technology concepts that could greatly enhance the quality of life for blind and visually impaired people.
Following the launch of the film, Guide Dogs and Microsoft teamed up with Future Cities Catapult to research and pilot some of the concepts; the programme of work is called Cities Unlocked.

To bring the concepts imagined in the film to life, we conducted an in-depth analysis of current technology and transport issues affecting intermodal journeys made by people who are blind or partially sighted. This research identified the key stress points in their journeys and possible solutions to alleviate them. We then set about designing and developing prototype technologies that, with a little training and practice, dissolve into the background of the user experience to enhance but not hinder cognitive ability. The pilot technologies are moving us closer to Social Computing – whereby places, points of interest and objects are aware of each other, and are contextually aware of us and our social interactions.

How the technology works

Crudely speaking, there are three aspects to the technology:

A ‘Cities Unlocked’ smartphone app that can be used with just one hand ..A bone-conducting headset containing a Gyro, GPS and Accelerometer to place information in 3D space relative to the direction the user is facing ..A boosted environment using GPS, WiFi and Bluetooth Low Energy beacons to aid orientation, navigation, transport and retail experiences Once user preferences have been set and a route selected, the phone can be stowed in a pocket or bag, leaving the user free to go about their business whilst receiving useful information through the headset in a unique 3D Soundscape. Additional buttons mounted on the headset, allow the user to access more information on the move without needing to take the phone out of their bag or pocket.

Here are examples of some of the features:

If the user is facing in the wrong direction they hear a clip-clop sound coming from the direction that they should be facing ..The user rotates towards the clipclop sound, and when they are facing in the right direction they will hear a gentle ping sound ..The ping sound plots the route, so the user simply follows the ping whilst using their guide dog or cane ..Along the route the user receives navigation information e.g. “turn left in 20 metres”

They also receive contextual information e.g. “dropped curb approximately 3 metres” or “caution, this street regularly has cars parked on the pavement”

Points of interest, shops and street furniture are also announced in 3D Soundscape – it sounds as though the announcement is coming from the direction of the point of interest. If the user changes direction the announcement automatically changes direction accordingly.

Bus stops, bus timetables, and when the next bus is approaching are announced. On the bus journey the technology continues to announce approaching stops and points of interest that the bus is passing. It also works in a similar fashion on train journeys.

Results from our user trials

We conducted a trial with 8 participants and
used data collection tools to assess mobility and quality of life factors while the participants undertook a long, complex and unfamiliar intermodal journey without the technology. This provided a baseline measure against which to measure any positive or negative effects when travelling the same journey some weeks later using the technology.

The illustration shows the improvements across 17 wellbeing measures in six areas; physiology, orientation skills, cognitive/conceptual skills, mobility skills, safety skills, and use of residual vision (for those that had some). The pink area shows results using their normal mobility aid, the blue area shows the improvement when the technology is used alongside the mobility aid.

The results show that the concept is a success in helping VI people’s mobility. Importantly, none of the markers showed a negative impact, and the results indicate that the technology is a complement to traditional mobility aids.

Next steps

Recognising that the solutions need to be sustainable on their own merit, otherwise they will raise expectations and lead to disappointment, we have now started planning for Phase 2 to incorporate the lessons learned into a bigger and more ambitious project.

We know that what we are doing is important globally – but we must all remember that what we are doing isn’t really about the technology; it is about people and the user experience.

Watch the Cities Unlocked film with audio description: