How Transparent Texting Works


Many commuters stroll along the train platform with their attention on their smartphone screens, but there’s risk in neglecting awareness of your surroundings.
Many commuters stroll along the train platform with their attention on their smartphone screens, but there’s risk in neglecting awareness of your surroundings.
© Kevin Dodge/Corbis

The number of cell phones in use in the world hit the 6 billion mark in 2011 [source: ITU]. We're using them for text-based communication more and more, and given human nature, it's not all that surprising that we are not always doing so in a wise manner.

You see it every day, and you might even be guilty of it yourself. People are walking while staring intently at their phones, texting their friends, sending e-mails or reading social media sites rather than paying attention to the sidewalks, roads or other pedestrians around them. Sometimes they bump into people, walk into street signs or worse. There have been a few highly publicized incidents recently. A person in Pennsylvania fell into a mall fountain while texting, and video of the incident received over 4 million hits on YouTube. Another in Melbourne, Australia walked off a pier while Facebooking and had to be rescued from frigid water by emergency personnel. A man texting in the Los Angeles suburbs walked dangerously close to a bear that was wandering his neighborhood before he noticed it and ran away. A woman in New York fell onto the subway tracks and was actually struck by a train. Thankfully, the victims in all of these cases survived, but not everyone has been so lucky. Deaths among pedestrian teens are up, and distracted strolling may be why [source: Davies].

The obvious solution: Don't look at mobile devices while walking. But many people seem unable to resist the siren song of constant connectivity. One potential solution to the problem is Apple's Transparent Texting. It's not yet a reality, but the company filed a patent in 2012 that was made public by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in March 2014. It shows a functionality that could let you continue to stare at your phone while simultaneously remaining aware of what's in front of you -- or at least in front of your phone. There are actually similar apps already in existence. But are they necessary?

How much havoc does texting while walking wreak?

Hopefully we all know that looking at our phones instead of the road while driving is extremely dangerous, far more so than simply talking on the phone while driving (although that has its risks, too). Operating motor vehicles while paying attention to other things (like maps, food, GPSs and cell phones) is called "distracted driving," and it resulted in 3,328 fatalities and around 421,000 injuries in 2012 in the U.S. [source: Distraction.gov]. But the dangers of similar behaviors while walking are becoming increasingly apparent, and we're hearing more in the news about the perils of "distracted walking."

Distracted walking can encompass other things, like listening to music or talking on the phone, but the most dangerous, and increasingly common, variety involves reading and writing text while walking -- that includes text messaging, e-mail and social media. We should all know better. It takes both your visual and mental attention away from the things around you. You can't very well look both ways when crossing the street while staring at a phone and updating your Facebook status.

But despite the obvious dangers of distracted walking, a recent survey revealed that 60 percent of pedestrians admitted to this behavior [source: Liberty Mutual]. The attention issues aside, another study found texting while walking slows your pace and causes you to veer off course. It also affects posture and balance negatively, making it even more likely you'll walk or stumble into things [sources: Knapton, Sampson, Schabrun].

In this age of rampant cell phone ownership and use, especially that of the ever-connected smartphone, texting and walking injuries are becoming more common, and they range from minor to fatal. It is not clear exactly how many pedestrian fatalities are directly caused by mobile device use, but pedestrian deaths in the U.S. increased from 4,457 in 2011 to 4,743 in 2012, and as a percentage of total traffic fatalities, pedestrian deaths have risen steadily from 11 percent in 2007 to 14 percent in 2012 [source: NHTSA].

An Ohio State University study showed that cell phone-related pedestrian injuries treated in emergency rooms tripled between 2004 and 2010 [sources: Augenstein, University of Buffalo]. According to a report from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), 1,152 people were sent to the emergency room (ER) during 2010 for injuries caused by using a mobile device while walking [sources: Liberty Mutual, Loth].

In early 2014, Dr. Dietrich V. Jehle, professor of emergency medicine at the University of Buffalo in New York, stated that around 15 percent of the 41,000 pedestrians treated annually in emergency rooms in the U.S. have injuries stemming from cell phone use. That comes to more than 6,000. Dr Jehle believed the percentage may actually be higher due to some people being unwilling to admit to mobile device involvement out of embarrassment [sources: Augenstein, University of Buffalo].

Sixteen to 25-year-olds have the highest rate of cell phone-related pedestrian injuries [sources: Augenstein, University of Buffalo]. A 2012 study by Safe Kids Worldwide showed that pedestrian injuries involving 16- to 19-year-olds went up 25 percent over the five years leading up to the report. The organization then conducted an observational study involving more than 34,000 teenagers and found that 20 percent of high school students cross the street while distracted by cell phones, music and other electronic devices. The researchers behind the study believe this to be a major cause of the increase [sources: ABC News, Davies, Safe Kids Worldwide].

Apple's Transparent Texting Solution

This rudimentary diagram shows the concept of Apple’s patent application.
This rudimentary diagram shows the concept of Apple’s patent application.
United States Patent and Trademark Office and/or

These rudimentary diagrams show the concept of Apple's patent application.

Apple describes a possible balm to the texting and walking problem in their Transparent Texting patent. And it uses technology that most smartphones already have.

The document details a typical SMS (Short Messaging Service protocol) or similar text messaging app, such as iPhone's own Messages, with a solid colored background and solid colored text bubbles containing the ongoing conversation, along with other features like the ability to edit messages, choose or take photos and compose texts using either the virtual keyboard or voice recognition.

It then goes on to describe functionality that makes the background of the messaging app display live video captured by the phone's rear facing camera (or any camera facing away from the user). The video feed appears as if the display itself were transparent and you were looking through it at the path before you.

On the screen, you'll see dialog bubbles containing the text, overlaid onto the video. The bubbles may be opaque, transparent or semi-transparent, although the text will remain opaque for readability. The video will change in real-time as you move around, and the text bubbles will continuously scroll as you type or receive new messages. It describes achieving semi-transparency by alternating opaque pixels with pixels from the video. The video will be at least partially obscured by text, but the more transparent the bubbles, the more you should be able to see. As an example, the figure drawings in the patent show a tree on a hill that moves as the texting session progresses, with transparent word bubbles through which you can still see the scenery, along with an odd scrolling conversation about a cow that appears to be a portion of a joke that you can find in a May 1958 edition of The Rotarian magazine.

The patent indicates that there would be a virtual transparency button or other user interface element that could be used the toggle the feature on and off within a messaging app. Aside from the main example of the text messaging app, the filing goes on to say that the same functionality could be used in other sorts of apps, such as Web browsers like Apple Safari, e-book readers like Apple iBooks and "any computer-executable application in which text is presented over a background" [source: Payne]. This could include social media applications, as well. The patent doesn't confine the idea to smartphones and mentions other configurations of computing equipment that can be used to the same end.

In theory, the user can type or read text while still remaining aware of what's going on in his or her environment, at least directly on the other side of the phone. The patent mentions that the app makes the user less likely to run into or stumble over things while texting.

Similar Existing Apps

Type n Walk will show you what’s in front of you while you type, but you’ll have to click the export icon at the top right of the screen to send your text to another app.
Type n Walk will show you what’s in front of you while you type, but you’ll have to click the export icon at the top right of the screen to send your text to another app.
Screen capture by HowStuffWorks staff

Transparent Texting sounds like a great idea, but it isn't exactly a new one. There are several existing apps that do similar things for Apple and non-Apple phones.

The Type n Walk app from CGactive was released in 2009 and is available in the iTunes store. It allows you to type text on top of a live feed from the camera, but doesn't allow messaging from within the app itself. Instead, you hit a copy button, close the app and open whatever app you want to paste the text into. It works for iOS 6.0 or later on iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch, but is not available for any non-iOS devices.

The Walk N Text Android app by Incorporate Apps on Google Play also lets you type text onto a video feed, and allows you to send what you type to the messaging, e-mail and social media apps installed on your device. The latest version will purportedly give any app on the device a rear camera video streaming background along with a transparent keyboard. There's also a version in the iTunes store (listed as WalkNText) for devices running iOS 4.0 or later that lets you share SMS, Facebook, Twitter or e-mail messages, but does not include the feature that lets it work across other apps.

CamText can actually give rear-camera live-streaming functionality to the Messages app right now, but only if your iPhone is jailbroken. Jailbreaking a phone means removing restrictions from it so that you can download and run third-party software that isn't from Apple's official App Store. You can't get support from Apple on a jailbroken phone, although you can reverse the jailbreak (which will wipe the unofficial apps) and get support. CamText is available through the Cydia app (an App Store alternative), and requires another app called Messages Customiser to work. Cydia and Messages Customiser are also only for jailbroken phones.

There are several other apps with similar features in iTunes and Google Play, with good to terrible reviews. Choose with caution.

But the patent means Apple could incorporate Transparent Texting into a future version of iOS to make it an integrated feature across multiple apps, which would make using it as simple as pushing a virtual button in whatever app you happen to be using. That would likely make the alternatives obsolete, at least on iOS devices. But there's no word on whether this is going to happen or when. If you want this feature now, a third-party app is your only bet.

Is this a good solution?

Again, the safest bet is to avoid using the texting or accessing the Internet while walking. But phone use is on the rise and the problem of distracted walking is likely to only get worse.

Transparent texting should be better than the status quo, but you probably still won't be paying strict attention to your surroundings while your mind is engaged in the act of messaging, even if you can essentially see "through" your phone screen. Like the earlier stories of texting and walking accidents, a man in the Philadelphia area was caught on camera falling onto train tracks while talking on the phone. Thankfully no train was coming and he extricated himself. But it is a reminder that all forms of distraction can be dangerous. Our brains just aren't really great at mental multitasking.

You may have to alter your habits a bit to get the most out of the functionality. If you continue to stare downward at the phone, you'll only be seeing the ground, and possibly getting neck strain (which has already been dubbed "text neck"). Holding your mobile device in front of you and looking forward may allow you to read and see the obstacles that are coming up, and maintain better posture. But constant video will drain your battery faster than simply texting, so you might want to keep your charger handy. And if you're on the move all time without a place to plug in, you may be in trouble when it comes to battery life.

More potentially life-saving apps are in the works. The Audio Aware app by One Llama is under development for Android devices as of early 2014. It will use your phone's audio equipment to listen for sounds of danger, like car horns, screaming, screeching tires or sirens. When it hears one of the sounds, it will turn off anything you are listening to and play either the danger sound or canned audio to alert you to pay attention. Another possible upcoming application is CrashAlert, which is being developed at the University of Manitoba. It will reportedly use a depth-sensing camera to spot upcoming obstacles and give you a pop-up warning. The prototype uses an Xbox Kinect, which won't really fit on a phone, so this one would require upgraded phone equipment and is probably a ways off. And, of course, any number of sensors could be integrated into or attached to our phones to detect the things around us. There are all sorts of possibilities. But Apple's transparent texting seems likely to come into being sooner -- if they decide to implement it, that is.

Whether you decide to abstain from staring at your phone while walking or to keep doing it and use technology to make it a little safer, awareness of the danger around you is the first step to avoiding accidents. Transparent texting, or another app like it, can let you see the fast-approaching tree, moving vehicle or manhole you are about to walk into, and maybe keep you from becoming one of those ER statistics.

Author's Note: How Transparent Texting Works

I've caught myself pulling out my phone to multitask while walking the dog or heading to my car at lunch, only to discover that I don't really have the necessary coordination to pull it off -- or that I'm about to step in front of a car. It's sobering. I try very hard to only use the phone while at a stopping point. But seeing what's going on right now on social media or getting those messages out during the downtime of walking is a constant temptation.

When I first read this topic, I thought of Google Glass, then the technology in the movie "Her." Augmented reality and voice activated tech may mitigate this issue to an extent (while probably creating their own problems). And who knows what our phones will be able to do in the future. But while most of us are still too squeamish to speak our texts in public, or too broke to always have the latest phone, transparent texting, or an equivalent downloadable app, might be a good stopgap measure to prevent needless injuries and fatalities. I'll be interested to see if it pops up in the one of the next iOS upgrades. Until then, safe walking, everyone.

Related Articles

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