Design Engineering
Showcase

Audio Architecture for Blind and Visually Impaired People

Student
Emily Branson
Course
Design Engineering MEng
Supervisor
Dr Lorenzo Picinali
Theme
Space Invaders

The Royal Institute of Blind People (RNIB) is a UK charity with the aim to “create a world where there are no barriers to those with sight loss”. These barriers include low confidence, increased anxiety and feeling of loss of control when wayfinding. This project seeks to reduce these barriers through intuitive wayfinding, redesigning RNIB’s historic London-based building to better serve the needs of its users through acoustic interventions.

 — Audio Architecture for Blind and Visually Impaired People
Typical corridor found at RNIB.

Background

Architecture and interior space contain civilization’s most valued assets: our homes, places of worship, schools, cultural centres and workplaces. But what if we couldn’t see this or any other ‘space’? We could adapt to our environment through trial and error, developing other senses, like hearing, to navigate around the many obstacles we encountered.

Blind and visually impaired individuals (VIB) have achieved this; not through increased capacity of the auditory system, but ‘in the exploitation of this acoustic and auditory information, requiring higher level cognitive processing, where blind individuals are able to excel relative to the sighted population’.

However, in spite of this progress, only 1 in 4 VIBs are in paid work, a figure which shows a concerning downward trend from decade ago. The NHS estimates there are 2 million people with sight loss in the UK, with approximately 360,000 people registered as visually impaired. Therefore, a large potential workforce is being excluded from work, contravening current legislation on inclusivity and equality.

What are the major barriers to work and self-development for blind and visually impaired individuals? Many highlight their low confidence when navigating certain areas. A solution to this is to optimise soundscapes for work-related activities for VIB individuals.

 — Audio Architecture for Blind and Visually Impaired People
RNIB Level 1 foyer: audio source and receiver positions.

Outcomes

This project was done in conjunction with the Royal National Institute of the Blind (RNIB). Their staff members were asked to report problem areas in their historic London building, which could be acoustically optimised for wayfinding. The Level 1 foyer was identified as a challenging major junction between different user areas; there were few suitable acoustic navigational markers for easy wayfinding or suitable surfaces for discerning important sound sources.

Two interventions were designed. The first applied generalised treatments, such as increased material absorption on ceilings, to identify whether blanket treatments were enough to overcome most identified issues. The second used additional localised treatment around each ‘decision point’ for better identification of the spaces.

SketchUp and CATT-Acoustic software were used for modelling and comparing acoustic parameters. Validation with two partially sighted and twenty-one sighted individuals concluded that these treatments vastly improved the soundscape, with Treatment 2 being just preferable to Treatment 1.

Next steps would have been fine-tuning the features around each ‘decision point’ with VIB individuals who use sound to navigate; however, COVID-19 ‘lockdown’ prevented testing of these more subtle parameters (e.g. directional differences).

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