(Pocket-lint) - We've just been blindfolded, given a white stick and told to navigate our way through the crowded maze of stands and demo pods at Microsoft's Future Decoded event in London. As you can imagine, this prospect is a daunting one, but is something that millions of blind people have to face each day, every day.
Thankfully though, we've got a secret weapon - a new tool created by Microsoft in collaboration with the Guide Dogs association that the company hopes will one day help not only millions of blind people around the world, but possibly everyone looking to get more information from their environment.
The hacked together piece of kit is a proof of concept at the moment rather than a commercial product, but that hasn't stopped Microsoft showing off its potential.
It is the first move in a bigger pitch from Microsoft that claims we need to start thinking about how we use technology differently. About how we need to use technology to help empower us more. And about how "technology exists to help human potential", as Satya Nadella, Microsoft CEO, tells Pocket-lint and others at the keynote speech kicking off the event.
Back on the show floor and it is certainly helping us navigate through the maze of stands from the likes of Dell, HP and Microsoft itself. We did have help of a guide as it's still very much early days and thecompany didn't want us to crash into anyone, but we still got a good grasp of the concept.
It works by giving audio cues about your surrounding area, dynamically and in real time, so you know where you are, what's around you and therefore where to go next. It's like an audio tour of a museum. But where an audio tour merely guides you around a set route, this has the potential to dynamically guide you around the world.
audio feels like it is coming from a 10 o'clock position and we turn our head instinctively, even though we are blindfolded. Our guide tells us we're spot on
Of course there are caveats. There are requirements for it to work. The main one is that you need the dedicated headset, then you need to have the accompanying app, and then you need beacons dotted around where you are.
The headset has been hacked from a pair of AfterShokz sports headphones with the band using jaw conducting tips so you don't have to wear in-ear buds - an important factor as he wearer must also be able to hear what is going on around them clearly. The headband has an accelerometer and GPS to not only determine where you are, but which direction you are facing.
Then there is the Windows Phone app that helps understand the information that is being presented to you by using Cloud-based location and navigation data pulled from a network of information beacons. This aids orientation, navigation and provides enhanced contextual information such as points of interest and additional journey details.
The combination of those elements enables the system to know exactly where you are in relation to the beacons or on Bing maps and guide you accordingly. It also means that it doesn't matter where you are or which way you are facing as the system can determine that and deliver information relevant to you.
Finally, you have the beacons that can contain either simple information about where it is positioned or contain further information about the company, the service, bus timetables, anything really.
A dozen or so steps on and we are getting our first instruction. Using a three-dimensional soundstage to help you further pinpoint the information (rather like the rear channels of a surround system at home or in a cinema that project sound behind you), we've been told there is a networking bar on our left.
The audio feels like it is coming from a 10 o'clock position and we turn our head instinctively, even though we are blindfolded. Our guide tells us we're spot on. A handful of steps further forward and we get our first real direction. We're to turn right.
At any point you can request to be "orientated" and this gives you a quick spin through the landscape around you, with the destinations sounding off within your 360-degree realm.
A little further on and we are shown more options, including the ability to explore your environment by it telling you what you are looking at rather than shouting about everything in your near vicinity.
Coming to the end of our journey, we've been not only able to work our way through the room, but have had an audio description of what was going on at the same time. It's been very non-intrusive and we found we didn't didn't pay attention to the cane we were holding because of it. It didn't involve us wearing a pair of glasses either.
And that's where you start to see that this is, in a subtle way, perhaps Microsoft's answer to Google Glass - although the company tells us it isn't.
We draw the parallel because both are about layering information on to the real world, both are about empowering people to gain a greater understanding of the environments around them, and while Google's focus is in the form of presenting information for you to see, Microsoft's is about delivering similar aurally.
Microsoft calls the project Cities Unlocked, because it unlocks the potential a city can have to people with disabilities. But it has possible uses for the ably sighted too. The technology could be used in a host of other scenarios.
From feeding back information to people riding a bike (turn left at next waypoint), to helping employees navigate around huge complex buildings they've not been to before, it's all going to be possible. And that could appeal to Microsoft even more. Although helping blind people to explore their surroundings in a way they might not have before is a great goal to begin with.