Atlantic Cities

3 Next-Gen Apps for the Stressed-Out Urbanite

Life in the city can get pretty stressful, and sometimes we're just too distracted to remember the little things — "long-term health," for instance, or "pedestrian safety" or "general well-being."

Fortunately there are three new apps designed to do that for us. In the latest issue of Pervasive Computing, a magazine published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, computer scientists Andrew Campbell of Dartmouth and Tanzeem Choudhury of Cornell describe the programs, which they helped to develop. The apps aren't exclusively for city use, but they seem tailor made for that urbanite caught up in the modern "busy trap."

The first is called WalkSafe. Say you get an important call while walking into the office and can't waste time looking both ways to cross the street. Well WalkSafe uses your smartphone's camera to detect approaching vehicles and warn you that it might be time to cross a bit faster.

The program, available for Android, collects images of the surrounding environment then processes them through a vehicle-detection model that's been trained to differentiate actual moving cars from the rest of an inanimate streetscape. If WalkSafe sees a match between its past training and your real-time situation, it interrupts your calls with sounds or vibrations.

The program isn't perfect — you've got to hold the eye of the smarthpone camera toward oncoming traffic — but early signs are encouraging. In recent experimental trials, WalkSafe detected about three-quarters of oncoming cars, from as far away as 160 feet, with only 3 false positives [PDF]. And because it drains a lot of precious battery life, the program only runs during an active phone call.

Once you make it to the office intact with WalkSafe, then it might be time to turn on the StressSense app. StressSense, expected to be released next month, uses the microphones in your smartphone to recognize vocal stress indices like pitch, speaking rate, jitters, and frequency. (For what it's worth, if you're talking above 500 Hz, you're stressed.) You can set the program to monitor your voice throughout the day or activate it for a specific conversation, reports New Scientist magazine.

Before StressSense can get to work while you get to work, you have to teach it your baseline voice. After a few minutes of calm reading from a book, the program is ready to detect changes in the norm. (Of course your baseline may already be clinically stressed, but hey everything's relative.) In one recent behavioral trial, StressSense developers gathered baseline voice rates for a group of people then placed them in a stressful job interview [PDF]. The program delivered an 81 percent accuracy rate indoors and a 76 percent rate outdoors, where ambient noise is greater.

If you survive the day thanks to WalkSafe and StressSense, then BeWell lets you know the quality of the life you've salvaged. The app tracks three health patterns automatically throughout the day — sleep, exercise, and socialization — and scores them on a scale of 100 against a set of medical standards. It measures sleep duration based on a phone's inactivity or charging status; physical activity through various sensors; and social interactions by ambient speech, phone calls and emails, and use of social media apps like Facebook.

BeWell also fared well in a recent trial, providing scores that correlated with the behavior of a test user over a typical week [PDF]. (For example, the user's social rating was low at the beginning of the week, while working at home, but rose during the week, as the user went into the office.) Sure you can probably fool it — say by charging your phone atop an oscillating fan while conversing with Siri — but don't forget you're only cheating yourself.

Campbell and Choudhury believe the current class of apps are prelude to a new generation of "cognitive" phones that combine some or all of these programs to help us lead the healthier lives we admittedly can't always achieve on our own. Soon you'll be able to partner StressSense data with BeWell scores and a phone's calendar function to determine which people, places, and things stress you out the most. Well presumably there will be an app that determines that for you too, but you get the idea.

Keywords: Apps, Computer Science

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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