Happy New Year, and welcome to the future!
With the holidays over and done with, I’m sure plenty of folks are showing off what Santa brought them. The especially lucky may have found 2019’s trendy audio accessory, a pair of wireless earbuds, in their stocking.
But the proliferation of low-profile earbuds and headphones has some safety experts worried. Between the music pumped into our ears, phone screens hijacking our eyes, and winter hoods blocking our periphery, being a pedestrian in the winter can be fatal.
But a team out of the Data Science Institute at Columbia University is hoping to change the frightening statistics, by creating “smart” headphones. With (standard) ’phones in, many folks can no longer hear a honked horn or the whoosh of an approaching vehicle: The proposed headphones would sense those external cues, and then impose a warning sound right overtop of the user’s playlist or podcast of choice, in-ear.
“The research and development of the smart headphones is complex: It involves embedding multiple miniature microphones in the headset as well as developing a low-power data pipeline to process all the sounds near to the pedestrian. It must also extract the correct cues that signal impending danger. The pipeline will contain an ultra-low power, custom-integrated circuit that extracts the relevant features from the sounds while using little battery power.
The researchers are also using the most advanced data science techniques to design the smart headset. Machine-learning models on the user’s smartphone will classify hundreds of acoustical cues from city streets and nearby vehicles and warn users when they are in danger. The mechanism will be designed so that people will recognize the alert and respond quickly.”
Of course, the crank in me pipes up around now, demanding why we can’t just look up and pay attention to our surroundings to keep ourselves safe. But human beings are not perfect actors — and if we can rely on tech to remind our fallible brains that there’s a baby in the backseat, why not with walking distracted? (Besides, sometimes a driver just doesn’t see you; and in a battle between a 2-tonne chunk of metal and human body, guess who loses.)
Averting tragedy is a net good that has no moralizing value. And, really, walking is so much better with a soundtrack! Why not make tech work for we pedestrians this winter?