Our journey started with Steve Gleason, through his No White Flags project. Back in 2014, Steve challenged us to develop technologies to improve communication and mobility for people with ALS. That drove a team of inspired Microsoft employees, including researchers, engineers, designers, and managers, to quickly develop, during the first Microsoft OneWeek Hackathon, experimental interfaces to type, speak, and control a wheelchair with eye movements. The prototypes worked so well that Steve motivated us by saying “keep this work rolling”–and so we did!
In early 2015 we created the Microsoft Research NExT Enable team, and we have been busily transforming the results of those hacks into robust, reliable technologies that can be used in many applications, such as the new Eye Control feature of Windows, introduced with the Windows Fall Creators Update in late 2017.
Our team expanded in late 2016, by incorporating the Cities Unlocked project, inspired by our 3D Soundscape technology. As the user walks around, we play back through a headset information about points-of-interest nearby, and the sound is perceived as coming from where the object is located. That way, the user can build a soundscape–a mental image of the landscape nearby–from those sounds, without having to look at the screen of a mobile device. That technology can be useful for people with low vision, and for others.