A new 3D “heartbeat” tapping through stereo headphones is bringing pedestrians more independence and confidence while they navigate through cities.

Three years in the making, Microsoft’s Soundscape app has been gaining fans from unexpected corners since it was released in February. The idea originated through a partnership with Guide Dogs UK and was geared toward helping people with vision loss. Audio cues guide users by making it seem like a steady beat is emanating from their destination, shifting through stereo headphones as they walk to help them form a mental picture of the location. It offers more independence than turn-by-turn mapping services. Verbal cues can be activated to call out shops, restaurants and other landmarks or explain where the user is and which direction they’re headed.

Now the app’s developers are discovering the philosophy of inclusive design that drove them is broadening Soundscape’s appeal.

The WE Schools program recently brought together a group of Tennessee high-school seniors and the band X Ambassadors, whose keyboardist is blind, for a lesson on inclusion and accessibility. The teens took the app on an audio scavenger hunt in Nashville to help them learn more about how it could help people with vision loss. By the time they’d reached their destination and were enjoying a private performance by the band, they were brimming with ideas for using Soundscape for themselves and friends – all of whom are sighted.

“Even though Soundscape was discussed as being for people who are blind, it took the students no more than two seconds to let us know that people with all sorts of different abilities and in different contexts could benefit from having a sound-based experience like this that’s not intrusive but is natural and comfortable,” said Amos Miller, a product strategist with Microsoft Research who co-created Soundscape. “We’re at the starting line with Soundscape, exploring using sound as augmented reality, which is a new concept for a lot of people, and it’s remarkable to see how this is applicable beyond the vision-impaired community.”

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