New app to save you from embarrassing tumbles

WINNIPEG - Do you have a habit of walking and texting at the same time? Then a new system being developed in Canada might just save you from accidents.

A post-doctoral researcher at the HCI Lab of the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg is developing a system that alerts engrossed smartphone users to upcoming obstacles.

The potential for injuries and even fatalities while distracted by a plethora of mobile devices is a growing concern.

Conceived by Mr Juan David Hincapie-Ramos, CrashAlert is a system - still in its early stages - that can identify such obstacles and alert a smartphone or tablet user to take evasive action.

First detailed in the MIT Technology Review, CrashAlert is more than just an app.

In order to detect obstacles and post on-screen warnings, additional hardware - in the form of a depth-sensing camera - such as that found on the Microsoft Kinect system is required.

In fact, that is how the proof-of-concept prototype was created, by strapping a Kinect to the back of a tablet.

Mr Hincapie-Ramos hopes that future generations of smartphones will have this depth-sensing technology incorporated.

PrimeSense, the company behind the motion- and depth-sensing technology inside the Kinect, recently showcased the Capri 1.25, which is a sensor small enough to be integrated into a smartphone or tablet, yet large enough to house almost all of the technology found in the Kinect.

In experiments with the Kinect/tablet hybrid, subjects tried to navigate a busy cafeteria while playing a game on the device, using only the alerts posted on the screen to avoid collisions.

Of the tests, Mr Hincapie-Ramos said: "Study results show that users took simpler corrective actions early on in their path upon noticing an obstacle, felt safer with our system and used it in unexpected ways to help navigate around the environment.

"This improvement came with no negative impact on performance, showing that even minimal environment information outside the user's periphery can provide for safer usage of mobile devices while walking."

The supporting paper he co-authored with Mr Pourang Irani will be presented in full at the Chi2013 conference in Paris on May 2.

Following successful early tests, Mr Hincapie-Ramos' next step is to develop a working prototype that integrates the camera technology, and perform further testing.

According to an observational study by the Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center at the University of Washington, published last December, texting while walking is hazardous for one's health, especially when trying to cross a road.

It found that while technology was not the only distraction - talking to others and dealing with pets or children also increase a pedestrian's chances of not crossing a road safely - people who were texting on their handsets took almost two seconds longer to cross an average road junction of three to four lanes than those who were not texting at the time.

What's more, they were almost four times more likely to ignore traffic lights, to cross in the middle of the junction, or fail to look both ways before stepping off the kerb.

So concerned were they by their results that the researchers called on the United States legislature to reconsider laws regarding the safe use of mobile devices.

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