Mobile Tech

Apple Patent Addresses Texting-Walking Risk

Texting while walking can be dangerous, but Apple could be aiming to make it less so, judging from a patent awarded Thursday by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Apple has found an innovative way to use an electronic communication device’s camera to continuously capture and present video images as background within a text-messaging session, its patent application 20140085334, titled “Transparent Texting,” suggests.

The device’s rear-facing camera could be used to make it appear the user was looking through a transparent screen. That would allow a texter to be continuously aware of the environment beyond the device’s display, while continuing to text or engage in an instant messaging conversation.

“The background within the text messaging session can continuously be a live and current video image of the view seen by the camera at any given moment,” Apple’s patent application reads. “Consequently, the device’s user is less likely to collide with or stumble over an object while participating in a text messaging session.”

False Sense of Security

Currently, mobile messaging users are finding themselves in a “unique predicament,” the application notes. That’s because — compared to someone using a laptop or desktop computer — the mobile user is frequently in motion, which can present a problem for someone walking and texting at the same time.

“Due to the visual nature of a text messaging session, such a user often will find it difficult to divide his attention between his device’s display and his environmental surroundings,” the application says.

“A user who is walking while participating in a text messaging session may inadvertently collide with or stumble over objects in his path because his attention was focused on his device’s display instead of the path that he was traversing,” it points out.

“Even if a user remains stationary while participating in a text messaging session, that user may expose himself to some amount of danger or potential embarrassment if he is so engaged in his device’s display that he becomes oblivious to changes in his surrounding environment,” it explains.

As well meaning as Apple’s patent application may be, it actually might encourage risky behavior because people would get a false sense of being aware of their environment.

“It’s just like talking — your head is somewhere else even though you can see what’s in front of you,” Jack Nasar, a city and regional planning professor at Ohio State University and co-author of a study on injuries from distracted walking, told TechNewsWorld.

Myth of Multitasking

Emergency room treatments of mobile-phone related injuries doubled from 2005 to 2010, last summer’s Ohio State study found. More than two thirds of pedestrians’ emergency room injuries (69 percent) were incurred while talking on a mobile phone, while 9 nine percent occurred while texting.

That’s not surprising since fewer people text and walk than talk and walk. However, another behavior also may be influencing the lower injury count.

“If you’re going to text, you’re probably going to stop, while with talking everyone walks while doing it,” Nasar said.

On its surface, Apple’s see-through proposal sounds like a good idea, but that may not be the case on closer examination.

“We’re not capable of doing two things at once,” Nasar maintained. “We may rapidly go back and forth between texting and looking. That change could take a second or half a second — time enough to walk into the street or walk in a hole.”

Among the injuries Nasar found while studying emergency room visits were a 14-year-old boy who fell off a bridge while talking on his cellphone and a 23-year-old man struck by a car as he wandered into the road while talking on his mobile.

Not a Solution

Apple’s proposed substitution of video for awareness won’t make texting and walking less risky, contended Lisa Muratori, a clinical associate professor in the department of physical therapy at Stony Brook University and co-author of a study on the effect of cellphone distraction on walking and memory.

“The visual system just doesn’t work like that. It doesn’t make the same judgements,” she told TechNewsWorld.

“I get the concept of what they’re trying to do. I don’t think it’s going to solve the problem,” she said.

“If they’re texting and the video is popped up, there’s no evidence that they’ll be able to tend to those things at the same time. Even if I do shift my attention to the screen, the information I get is not the same information I get when I look out into the real world,” Muratori pointed out. “I’m not confident this technology is going to assist people in being safer when they’re using texting.”

John Mello is a freelance technology writer and contributor to Chief Security Officer magazine. You can connect with him on Google+.

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