May 28, 2022

One of the challenges of growing up with visually impaired people is learning and participating in the social and interactive body language used by people with visual impairments. PeopleLens is a Microsoft research project that helps users stay aware of the places and identities of the people around them, enabling richer, more seamless interactions.

A person looking around the room can quickly see who is where, who is talking to whom, and other basic information useful for various social cues and behaviors. However, a blind person cannot know who just entered the room, or if someone was looking at him to induce him to speak. This can lead to isolation and antisocial behavior such as avoidance of groups.

Microsoft researchers wanted to find out how technology can help a child who has been blind from birth access and use this information in a way that makes sense to them. They created PeopleLens, an intelligent set of software tools that ran on augmented reality glasses.

Using sensors built into the glasses, the software can identify familiar faces and indicate their distance and position using audio cues such as clicks, calls and spoken names. For example, when the user’s head is pointed at someone, a small thud is heard, and if that person is within 3 meters or more, it is followed by their name. A series of ascending tones then helps the user focus on the person’s face. Another notification sounds if someone nearby sees the user, and so on.

3D rendering of PeopleLens software and environment.

3D rendering of PeopleLens software and environment. image credit: Microsoft Research

The idea is not for a person to wear such a device throughout their life, but to use it as a learning tool to increase awareness of other cues and respond to them in a professional manner. This helps the child develop the same non-verbal skills that others learn through the benefits of sight.

Right now, PeopleLens is mostly an experiment, although the team has been working on it for a while now. The next step will be to create a group of students aged 5 to 11 in the UK who will be able to test the device for a longer period of time. If you think your child might be a good fit, consider applying to become a Microsoft Partner on the University of Bristol study page.

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