Ding! (“Oh, looks like its time to cross!”)

What if sound could be used to make crosswalks safer?

If you go out to the intersection of 5th and Spring in Tech Square at any time during the day, you are almost certain to find at least one person at/in a crosswalk. Although crossing the street is such a common task, it isn’t always safe for everybody. Many people that pass through Tech Square are fully immersed in conversation, whether on the phone or in person. Others that come through may have disabilities such as a visual or physical impairment. Regardless of the reason, many individuals experience some degree of difficulty or even danger in such a simple task as crossing the street.

A sound oriented interface would make the process so much safer for many different people. In order to stick out from the sea of conversations that occur among people, a non vocal sound is probably best. Something high pitched enough for people to distinguish, yet pleasant enough not to annoy anyone. I imagine a nice pleasant ding that sounds right before, during, and right after the designated time to cross the street.

For example, I am sure most of you can relate to the people who text or, in this day and age, play “Pokémon GO” while walking. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were an alarm or sorts that told you when it was time to cross the street? For the “distracted walkers”, the cue could bring them out of their distraction and allow them to safely cross the street before continuing with their distraction. For others who are disabled in some way, the sonic cue gives them time to prepare themselves to cross the street without harming themselves in the process, whether its making sure to face the right direction or getting out of the way of other pedestrians.

In today’s world, sound is becoming an important part of the way people live their lives. So why not bring the novelty of sound technology into crosswalks? As opposed to the visual cues that come from stoplights and crosswalk lights, sound cues are omnidirectional and cannot be ignored that easily. We need to do whatever it takes to create safer crosswalks, and I think 5th and Spring is just one of the many crosswalks that can benefit from a sound-based interface.

Safely Crossing, Safer

The intersection between 5th and spring street doesn’t particularly stand out against those in other part of the city, or even in other cities; pedestrians wait at either side, while drivers idle at the lights, both waiting to occupy the intersection while the other is not (or, for those less fortunate, at the same time). Among many menial tasks, the most important one undertaken in the intersection is crossing it.

The current interface designed to facilitate the completion of this task works; there are clear markings on the road painted in a cautionary yellow to guide walkers, and traffic lights for both the pedestrians and drivers. Accompanying this visual interface is the characteristic sound of a city; the zooming of cars, indicating their speed and position in space, and the barely audible footsteps of people. What’s missing however, is useful sound; sounds that are specifically there to help drivers and walkers safely cross. Adding sound will offer a new dimension to the interface, providing more cautionary stimulus to warn users of dangerous situations. Specifically, the addition of a loud, unique “beep” to notify pedestrians when it is and isn’t safe to cross:

walk           stop

Often, drivers are confronted with an unknowing jaywalker gazing down at his phone, unaware of the intersection, and the purely visual interface that exists. In the improved system, when the pedestrian steps about 25 feet before the intersection, a motion activated “beep” will sound if there is on-coming traffic, directing his attention away from the distraction. The addition of unique sounds is more beneficial than using speech direction; chatter between other people is often ignored, so it can be anticipated that speech from the interface would be too. Furthermore, there would be an issue of consistency; it is impossible to match the voice of the interface to every pedestrian. A neutral voice could be proposed; however, this only falls under the category of ignored speech, not differing from the existent ambient chatter.

The improvement of the driver’s experience with the interface would draw on visual properties, sound not being of use when traveling in a sound proof vehicle (for the sound to be heard, it would be irritating to the pedestrians). With our vision focused on the road (as needed to make a turn), new visual signals will surely be noticed. Adding lights indicating the presence of a pedestrian in the crosswalk (specifically for cars turning right on red) can increase safety for the pedestrians, while alleviating the drivers’ concern of hitting an unseen pedestrian.