Back in 2012, I started working on a project in collaboration with Microsoft. The entire project spanned 6 years and in 2015, I was seconded to Microsoft full-time for 2 years.
The project was focused on using technology to help people with sight loss navigate the environment. As the Technology User Experience Lead, it was my job to keep the Microsoft guys true to the cause and to offer advice and guidance to the UK team as well as the engineering team in the Seattle.
An Apple Fan At Microsoft
From the age of 16 I have always used Apple machines. That’s not to say I haven’t used Windows machines but 99% of my work and play time has been spent with Apple products.
When I was seconded to Microsoft I wasn’t too sure what they’d think about me rocking up to their UK HQ with a MacBook Pro stuffed under my arm. The reality was, this was the machine I was most comfortable with, I knew it intimately and had been using Apple products for over 25 years by this time.
I had never been a Microsoft fan, I felt they were a different beast to Apple. I never felt like they had the attention to detail that Apple had. In many respects, especially in the 90s, I was in the minority back then. Pretty much everyone I knew was using Microsoft products and I’d always get snide remarks such as “What are you using an Apple machine for…get a proper computer and OS”.
Those comments never phased me, I knew what I liked and that wasn’t going to change.
Leaving My Preconceived Thoughts At The Door
I knew right from the outset, when I was seconded to Microsoft, that it would be crucial that I left my preconceived thoughts at the door if the project was to be a success. It was something I consciously thought about and took very seriously.
One of the first things I noticed, probably because I was self-conscious, was that many employees were using and carrying around different devices. MacBooks, Surface Pros, iPhones, Windows Phones, Android devices etc. A lot of employees, were of course, using Surface Pros but it certainly wasn’t mandatory, as far as I could tell, that employees should use Microsoft only products.
Technology To Make A Difference
The technology we had in mind was about being an enabler, thinking about sight loss in a different way. We knew from the beginning that we didn’t just want to create another turn by turn navigation app for blind people, that would have been a pointless exercise. We wanted to create something different, something that was fundamentally built for people with sight loss but at the same time had universal applicability.
Having worked at Guide Dogs UK for 15 years, I had a pretty good grasp of the challenges those with sight loss face on a daily basis. I’ve worked with hundreds of individuals with different eye conditions and for some, just stepping out their front door is challenging and frightening. We wanted to change that.
We knew we couldn’t solve every problem and we understood that what we worked on wouldn’t make a difference to everyone but if we could change just a few people’s lives, it would be worth it.
A 3D Audio Solution
Contrary to popular belief, many people with sight loss do have some residual vision, only a very small percentage are totally blind. We focused on people with total sight loss, this was the biggest challenge and we were confident if we could crack that then it would benefit people with different visual impairments.
I couldn’t possibly go into all the details around prototyping, thought process, research, user testing and conclusions we did over the years in a single article, it would end up far too long and I’m also tied to an NDA.
Suffice to say it was clear from the outset that people with sight loss wish to use the same devices as those with sight, they didn’t want a bespoke product and they wanted something that wasn’t expensive.
We concluded that using a 3D audio engine could really help to bring the environment to life using a bone conduction headset and an app. The tagline we used was ‘Lighting up the world through sound’
The Microsoft Team
When we first started the project, it was all based out of the UK. There was a team of around 10 people. It was necessary to immerse the team, really help them to understand what sight loss meant, the daily challenges, navigating a rural location, navigating an urban environment etc.
The Microsoft guys were unbelievable, they didn’t just want to know the surface facts, they wanted to dig down into every little detail they possibly could to understand what solutions might help. Some even blindfolded themselves for a whole day so they could really empathise and understand how even basic navigation was incredibly challenging and difficult.
It didn’t just stop there either, throughout the entire project they were always learning more about sight loss and it was incredible to observe the transformation over time. By the end of the project they would say and discuss things that even amazed me. It’s as though they had been working with visually impaired people all their lives.
Windows Mobile, iOS or Android?
One of the very first prototypes we developed was on Windows Mobile for obvious reasons but as we started to think about production, a decision had to be made on which platform to release on first. I wanted to go with iOS because at the time Apple were ahead of the curve in terms of accessibility for people with sight loss.
I was expecting they would default to Windows Mobile but after I explained my reasons for going with iOS, they decided it would be the best option. Development began on iOS and it was from that moment forward I realised that these guys weren’t doing it for the money, they truly wanted to make a difference to those less fortunate.
Switching Engineering Teams
Around half way through the development process, we needed to switch engineering teams. There were numerous reasons for this but ultimately the new devs were based out of Redmond.
Anytime you switch engineering teams there will always be a slowdown in progress. I flew out to Redmond with a few of the UK guys and we started to onboard the new team and help them to understand the philosophy, immerse them in the experience and teach them all we could about sight loss and why this app could make such a difference.
At the beginning of 2018 the pressure was on. It was crucial that the app was ready for release by March. We had done all the research, the validation, the exhaustive testing, it was now time to push it out the door.
Initially the app was due to be released in the UK and the USA, it would be released in more countries later but that required more work with localisation and other considerations before that was possible.
We had a huge backlog of features we had spoken about over the years and we knew it could be improved but for a v1.0 is was good to go.
We had referred to the app with different names throughout the project but eventually settled on Microsoft Soundscape. We hit our deadline and it was launched in early March 2018 for free.
My Perception Had Changed
I have not even begun to scratch the surface in terms of the project and what we did in those years but what I can tell you is that my whole perception of Microsoft as an organisation changed.
The people I worked with were all incredible, they were intelligent, fun, focused, hardworking and most importantly they really did want to make a difference. It wasn’t about the revenue, it was about doing something good, using technology in a way that could really help people with sight loss.
Over those years and having internal insight, I watched how Microsoft transformed with Satya Nadella at the helm. Their accessibility team headed up by Jenny Lay-Flurrie grew massively in the time I was there. Between Jenny’s team and Microsoft AI & Research, they were doing some incredible stuff that would change the lives of people less fortunate than ourselves.
What I was amazed at was the amount of stuff they were working on to make a difference, it was phenomenal, it wasn’t just a couple of products here and there, it was a LOT and there was total commitment to them as well.
Most people are aware of all the latest technology for mass market consumption, but many are not aware of technological achievements that have been developed for people with disabilities.
We all know what Windows is, what the Xbox is, what Office 365 is, but Microsoft are doing some incredible stuff in the background which doesn’t get the kudos it deserves.
I encourage you to take a few minutes to do a search for Microsoft Accessibility or Microsoft Research to appreciate just what these guys are doing and how they are developing technological solutions that fundamentally change how people with disabilities live their lives for the better.
This is where technology really shines, I stand and applaud Microsoft for genuinely focusing on making a difference.