Technology 2 min read

New Smart Headphone System Warns Pedestrians of Dangers

Jacob Lund /

Jacob Lund /

Researchers at Columbia University have invented a new smart headphone system that warns pedestrians of imminent danger.

In this digital media age, it’s no longer uncommon to see pedestrians in city streets “twalking.” The term refers to the practice of messaging or talking on a smartphone while walking in no specific direction.

Often, these pedestrians wear a pair of headphones and earbuds, blocking off auditory cues that signal imminent danger like horns, shouts, or sounds of an approaching vehicle. An absence of both visual and aural cues on city streets can result in pedestrian injuries —  or worse, death.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recorded 6,283 pedestrian deaths last year. That’s the highest level since 1990. So, the concern about using headphones on the street isn’t surprising.

To address this issue, a team at the Data Science Institute, Columbia, designed a smart headphone system. The new tech warns pedestrians of imminent dangers to enable them to respond quickly.

In a statement to the press, an assistant professor of electrical engineering at Columbia Engineering, Fred Jiang said:

“We are exploring a new area in developing an inexpensive and low-power technology that creates an audio-alert mechanism for pedestrians.”

So, how does the technology work?

Developing a Smart Headphone System For Road Safety

Researching and developing a pair of smart headphones was no easy task.

First, the team had to embed miniature microphones in the headsets, including a low-power data pipeline to process the surrounding sounds. The pipeline contained an ultra-low-power custom-integrated circuit that extracts the relevant features from the sounds.

The setup must be able to extract the right cues that signal imminent danger. And that’s where machine learning comes in.

Using machine-learning models on the user smartphone, the researchers classified dozens of acoustical cues from city streets and nearby vehicles. In turn, the system will alert users when they’re in danger to enable them to respond quickly.

Currently, the team is testing the smart headphone systems in the lab, and on the streets of New York. Psychologists will also perform perceptual and behavioral experiments to refine people’s response to the alert.

We hope that once refined,” Jiang says, “the technology will be commercialized and mass-produced in a way that will help cities reduce pedestrian fatalities.”

Read More: Researchers Create World’s First Sound Projector Using $12 Webcam

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Sumbo Bello

Sumbo Bello is a creative writer who enjoys creating data-driven content for news sites. In his spare time, he plays basketball and listens to Coldplay.

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