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Microsoft revamps its navigation headphones for the blind

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An over-the-ears pair with voice input

Microsoft is overhauling its headphones for the visually impaired to make traversing urban environments a little bit easier. The device, which provides audio prompts and directional clues provided by a Bluetooth-connected smartphone, now sits over the ears. Wearers can also now use voice commands or a connected remote to request more information about their surroundings or play back audio they've just heard. The experimental headphones are part of an initiative called Cities Unlocked, which focuses on using technology to aid the lives of those with sight loss.

Cities Unlocked last year launched its first in-ear device in a trial restricted to the UK. It used bone conduction to allow wearers the ability to hold conversations without the headset's audio drowning out nearby voices. Yet those headphones, an off-the-shelf Aftershockz set, mostly functioned through Microsoft software and audio clicks to help guide wearers in the right direction. The new "phase two" over-the-ears pair provides new audio descriptions alongside the navigation prompts. They're also able to let in environment noises while still retaining the original headset's "3D soundscape" effect that takes into account which direction the wearer is facing and the direction of incoming sound.

To help more than 285 million visually impaired people around the world

"After phase one last year we started to think deeply about how we can empower people to be more independent, more mobile, and act in much the same way as a sighted person would do," Jarnail Chudge, Microsoft's project lead for the Cities Unlocked program, told the Irish Examiner. Cities Unlocked was founded in 2011 as a partnership between Microsoft and UK-based charity Guide Dogs. Microsoft began investing in the initiative after Amos Miller, a visually impaired executive, became a Guide Dogs board member and brought the idea to the attention of CEO Satya Nadella, then the chairman of a disability group inside Microsoft while he ran the company's cloud division.