Human impacts on the seafloor environment have reached unprecedented levels. To facilitate ocean management and mitigate these impacts, there is a need to improve our understanding of seabed habitats. Recent developments in acoustic survey techniques, in particular multibeam echosounders (MBES), have revolutionised the way we are able to image, map and understand benthic ecosystems. Using MBES, it is now cost-effective to image large areas of the seafloor, and such surveys provide baseline data from which thematic maps of the seabed environment, including maps of benthic habitat, can be derived and interpreted in conjunction with in situ ground-truthing data. This paper provides an overview of recent developments in the application of MBES for seafloor habitat studies, with a focus on the use of backscatter data for surficial geology and habitat mapping. In March 2006, a MBES backscatter workshop brought together a number of international research teams/groups working on novel methods for interpretive/classification routines for segmentation of the backscatter into acoustic classes with the potential to facilitate the delineation of seabed geological and habitat characteristics. This paper introduces the common data set used as part of the workshop, sets out the research context in which the different studies were conducted, and outlines the main themes of the papers presented in Section 6.