Texting while walking in public is usually an arrogant risk marked by bruised shins and near-misses with oncoming traffic. Fortunately for impatient smartphone users, a new app could keep an eye out even when we can’t.

BLGO: Device Curbs Driver Texting By Disabling Car

The new system, called CrashAlert, was developed by computer scientists at the University of Manitoba. Associate professor Pourang Irani and postdoc researcher Juan David Hincapié-Ramos wanted to find a realistic solution to the ongoing dangers posed by walking and texting. Since phone users aren’t likely to pocket their devices, the system restores their peripheral vision instead, Hincapié-Ramos told Technology Review’s Rachel Metz.

Their initial CrashAlert prototype is far more than just an app — it’s a tablet computer with a Microsoft Kinect plus a backpack containing a battery and a laptop. The Kinect camera provides the depth-sensing to detect obstacles. Whenever an object or person gets within about six feet of the user, an alert with red squares near the obstacle shows up on the screen.

Eight volunteers tested the system out by navigating a busy cafeteria while playing a whac-a-mole-type game on the tablets. The subjects later said CrashAlert made them feel safer and able to dodge obstacles while continuing to play the game. Metz rightly pointed out that the current setup is clunky, but she reported that the scientists plan to get all that technology into a more compact and refined prototype soon.

Last year I tested out a crash-avoidance app for walking called Transparent Screen. The free app used the phone’s camera to make the screen appear see-through. Unfortunately the camera use drained my old Android phone’s battery and I still had to look up to see obstacles. I ended up just putting the phone back in my bag.

BLOG: Transparent Screen Prevents Collisions

A paper about the CrashAlert prototype will be presented next week in Paris at the annual Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, known as CHI 2013. Until a self-contained version gets rolled out for the multitasking public, I highly recommend the trusty pausing-next-to-a-building strategy when reading a phone. Other pedestrians — and drivers — will thank you.

Credit: Sidkid via Flickr