Have you ever noticed someone blabbing away on their cell phone so intently that they waltz right into an intersection with no apparent awareness of oncoming traffic? (Maybe that’s just a Manhattan thing.) We could just let evolution weed these morons out of the gene pool—hard to pass on your bad habits when they turn you into roadkill—but that’s a bit uncharitable. Researchers at Dartmouth’s Smartphone Sensing Lab have a more humane approach: They’ve created an Android app called WalkSense that uses the phone’s camera to sense dangerous oncoming traffic during phone calls.
The researchers wrote computer-vision algorithms that use the phone’s camera to recognize the shapes and velocities of incoming cars—on a Nexus One, it can detect a grille coming at you from up to 50 meters away. If the detected vehicle is traveling 30 mph or faster, the app vibrates the phone and beeps, alerting the user to stop gabbing about what happened on Jersey Shore and hightail it to the other curb.
Then again, WalkSense can only sense cars coming in the direction that the camera is pointing, so if you tend to hold your phone up to your right ear, you could get creamed. And the interaction design, while clever, could perversely amplify the very danger it’s designed to help reduce—why even bother to look both ways if WalkSense has you covered, right? Wait, the app has a blind spot! Oops, you’re dead.
Of course, few people are that colossally dumb. And WalkSense could be a great safety net for those once-in-a-blue-moon times when you’re distracted enough to make a mistake while crossing an intersection. But don’t bet your life on it.