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How Spatial Audio Can Help People Who Are Blind

by Jazmin Cano Accessibility Product Manager

At some point in our lives, we'll all likely experience some sort of accessibility needs, whether it be permanent, temporary, or momentary. If you do not consider yourself someone with a disability, think about situations where you would benefit from accessible design. For instance, using speech-to-text or Siri on your phone when it would be difficult to type — this technology benefits people who are blind, and also is generally useful for everyone.

Why do I bring this up? To share the importance of accessibility. It’s important to think about others as we make products, so that hopefully they can benefit anyone and make a better experience for humans everywhere.

Specifically, how can spatial audio technology help people who are blind — and everyone overall? Let’s dive in.

Implementing Accessibility With Spatial Audio For People Who Are Blind

First, we must define what it means to implement accessibility. High Fidelity offers a low latency Spatial Audio API that is designed for applications, games, and online events, delivering the experience of a live, immersive conversation or performance for groups of any size.

To ensure accessibility, High Fidelity works with Fable, an online testing platform that focuses on testing with people who use assistive technologies. Incorporating the voices and expertise of those with disabilities in various stages of our product development is invaluable.

When we’ve tested our Spatial Audio with people who are blind and use screen readers, many have remarked that it mimics real life! Meeting with people in our demo space allows us to walk around the environment together just by using the sound of our voices. Similar to people being able to locate each other in the physical world with sound, people are able to do so using High Fidelity’s Spatial Audio in virtual 3D environments.

Explore Spatial Audio Solutions

In addition, just as in the physical world, there are moments in virtual spaces where people who are blind are able to tell if they bump into someone or something! During early design stages of one of our sample apps, thanks to feedback from Fable, we incorporated sound effects that mimic real life. While audio can sometimes be for entertainment purposes, it’s also important to use it for navigational reasons — this ensures people who are blind are given the information they need. For instance, if someone’s going to bump into a bush, add plant rustling sound effects. If someone’s walking on a sandy surface, make the footsteps sound accordingly. Place audible, static landmarks that can be referenced.

When a virtual world is populated with sounds people would normally hear around them — in spatial audio, just like real life —  it especially helps those who are blind know the type of environment they’re in.

Spatial Audio Technology Helps Facilitate Immersion

Another way spatial audio technology can assist people who are blind is by helping them capture and experience moments later on for personal use. For example, Matthew Dierckens, a tester at Fable, shared a way that he liked to capture memories: By using binaural microphones! He takes the microphones out to various locations and records. Some of these recordings captured the noises of a walk from his home to a cafe. He described hearing environmental sounds: Some of them louder, such as cars and trucks zooming past him, and some of them much more subtle, such as birds chirping, or a tree swaying. 

Help can also come in the form of apps meant to assist people navigate physical spaces. For instance, Soundscape by Microsoft uses spatial audio to alert people where places are in their real world environment such as a landmark being ten feet away. 

Spatial Audio is the Future of Virtual Environments

Virtual environments with spatial audio are only becoming increasingly popular: Take SoundStage.fm, an interactive environment for virtual concerts where artists and their fans can chat more intimately, or Hubbub, virtual networking spaces for teams and conferences that feel much more natural — both virtual places where you can feel the buzz of people around you.

And there are even more new possibilities where spatial audio could help people that may not have been created yet! In a recent chat with Samuel Proulx, Fable’s Accessibility Evangelist, he shares that listening to the sounds in your environment as someone who is blind is a skill that must be learned. He imagines the development of a new virtual training environment (or) training resource where people could practice paying attention, helping them learn the navigation skills they need in the physical world — while in a safe, low risk setting. This is just one fantastic idea for how spatial audio could help people who are blind.

Add Spatial Audio To Your App or Game To Make It More Accessible

In an NPR talk, Designing Our World: Accessibility In Tech, Jutta Treviranus says “It’s a cycle. The more we design accessible technology, the more accessible things will be.” 

One of High Fidelity’s goals is to ensure developers who use assistive technologies can easily use our Spatial Audio API to build web apps and in-game voice chat. Imagine what will be created as the world of audio technology moves increasingly toward accessibility…

If you’d like to join our developer community and code awesome spatial audio apps, get started by making a free account here! We can’t wait to see what you build.

Published by Jazmin Cano April 23, 2021

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