Researcher creates headphones to warn pedestrians of hazards

A researcher from Columbia University has created a set of headphones that are meant to help break through the oblivion of many pedestrians today. People routinely walk directly into a situation that can have catastrophic consequences for them because they are distracted by music or video on smartphones and can't hear or don't see hazards.

Those wearing headphones often can't hear warnings like car horns, shouts, or the sound of approaching cars. The phenomena of people walking and wearing headphones or earbuds is known as "twalking," and as a result, the rate of injuries and deaths in the U.S. caused by walking have tripled in the last seven years.

The researchers have created an intelligent headphone system that can warn pedestrians of imminent dangers. The headphones use miniature microphones and intelligent signal processing to detect sounds of approaching vehicles.

When a hazard is near, the system sends an audio alert to the headphones. The team believes that once developed; the new headphones could help reduce pedestrian injuries and fatalities. The project was awarded a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation in 2017. The R&D process is complex and involves embedding multiple microphones in the headset as well as developing a low-power data pipeline to process sounds near the pedestrian.

The system also has to extract the correct cues that signal impending danger. The systems will use an ultra-low-power, custom-integrated circuit, to extract relevant features from sounds using little battery power. The user smartphone will use machine-learning models to classify hundreds of acoustical cues from city streets and nearby vehicles to warn users when they are in danger. The system is currently in testing on the streets of New York, and the team hopes to create a prototype that can be transferred to a commercial company.