We've heard the future and it's amazing. Microsoft's new Soundscape app for iOS uses innovative audio technology to bring the area around you to life, letting you know about interesting things and helping you find your way around places you don’t know. You can even use it to virtually visit spaces and places without leaving the sofa.
If you have an iPhone and headphones of any kind, this is a must-try app for when you're out and about.
It creates a 3D map that you experience with your ears rather than your eyes, enabling you to discover more about the places around you and to navigate familiar or unfamiliar streets in new and clever ways.
Augmented reality for your ears
The best way to describe Microsoft Soundscape is augmented reality for your ears. It uses your iPhone's location tracking to identify where you are and OpenStreetMap to learn what’s nearby, and it can then deliver key information to you via immersive 3D audio – so for example if you're interested in things like cool record shops, it'll tell you when one's nearby and the sound will come from the direction where you'll find it.
It's particularly good if your headphones have head tracking, because then the app knows not just what direction you're moving in, but also where your eyes are pointing. That means the audio prompts are always coming from the right direction no matter what you're looking at.
Microsoft Soundscape will tell you when you're nearing a junction or intersection and make sure you go the right way, and it can also let you know about anything interesting you might be passing. And you can use it to plan and share routes too.
Hear we go: find your way with Audio Beacons
One of our favorite Microsoft Soundscape features is Audio Beacons. This enables you to select a nearby place and get audio prompts to get there. The sound changes based on direction and distance so you always know you're going the right way.
It's a handy thing for travelling to new places too, enabling you to leave places like train stations with the confidence of a local who knows where everything is. That's particularly helpful if you're travelling alone: we use the vibrating direction alerts on our smartwatch so we're not obviously looking at our phone's maps app when we arrive in a new town or city, and this is even more informative and convenient.
Another great feature is Markers, which you can use to remember and share favorite places.
You can combine Markers with Routes to create entire audio journeys, and there's a feature called Street Preview that you can use to virtually explore places you've never been before so you can get a feel for the place before you go.
The sound of the future
Microsoft Soundscape is a project from Microsoft Research, which is where Microsoft dreams up and designs the tech of the future. And Microsoft is happy to admit that Soundscape is a "new and novel concept."
The developers really want your feedback on the app: what works well, what could be improved and what you'd like to see, or rather hear, in future releases.
Although Microsoft Soundscape is very impressive already, we think its features are just scratching the surface of what this technology is capable of. The potential for augmented reality audio is really exciting: think custom maps for tourism or urban exploration, even smarter personal digital assistants, and navigation that helps you discover new things as well as get where you want to go.
There's also enormous potential for this as an assistive technology for people with visual impairments.
For example, the very first review on the App Store is from a blind person who's tested the app and says "for the first time ever, I can use VR to explore my neighbourhood." That's incredible.
You can watch the Soundscape Street preview below
Enhance your existing apps
Microsoft Soundscape is designed to complement your existing apps rather than replace them. It runs happily and quietly in the background, enhancing your existing apps such as Apple Maps or Google Maps and enabling you to run it in tandem with your music, podcast or fitness app.
It's available for iPhones from the iPhone SE onwards: if you have iOS 14.1 or later you can install Microsoft Soundscape and hear your world in a new and very interesting way.
You can find out more about Microsoft Soundscape on the Microsoft Research website (opens in new tab), and you can download the iPhone app from the Apple Store here (opens in new tab).