Microsoft 3-D audio system helps the visually impaired navigate more easily

Bone-conducting headphones, part of the 3-D audio system--Courtesy of Microsoft

Microsoft ($MSFT) engineers have developed a 3-D audio system that can help the visually impaired move about on city streets and within their homes with greater ease using Bluetooth technology.

The system uses a headset connected to a Windows smartphone that receives signals from Bluetooth-enabled beacons attached both indoors and outdoors to objects like poles and posts. The beacons send information to the user wearing the headset through sounds and verbal directions, alerting them to any obstacles as well as naming landmarks and streets as they approach them.

The system was tested in Reading, England, and was developed in conjunction with Guide Dogs UK and design institute Future Cities Catapult. The team was led by Microsoft engineer Amos Miller, who is visually impaired.

"The possibility of what this could be was exciting and still is," Jenny Cook of Guide Dogs said in a report cited by the BBC. "We've only done a concept, it's still pure research and development, but the possibilities are endless and the impact is incredible if we get this right."

Though the cost to outfit a city, or small town, would likely be very high, the report added that such technology could help reduce the high unemployment rate--estimated at around 65% in the U.K. and U.S.--of the visually impaired by making it easier to get to and from jobs.

Right now, wearable devices are all the rage in the medical device field. Companies like Microsoft, Apple ($AAPL), Google ($GOOG) and Amazon ($AMZN) all have devices that garner media and health industry attention with their potential. Apple's smartwatch is the most prominent example of wearable devices to hit the market so far.

According to a recent report by PwC, digital devices, including wearables, received more than $200 million in funding by mid-2014.

- check out the BBC report
- more from the BBC
- see the Microsoft story

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