The fall detection algorithm using the accelerometer in the Apple Watch is a feature for older people and for practitioners of high-risk sports. When the accelerometer detects a hard fall, the device sounds an alarm, and allows the user, if conscious and able to move, to respond. If you don’t do so within a minute, it connects with the emergency services and your emergency contact, sending your location. The feature has helped users in several documented cases, and it has even prompted debate about the emergency services entering your home to help you — they don’t need a warrant in emergency cases — and finding something that might incriminate you.
Not to be outdone, Google has introduced a similar feature for traffic accidents, an app built into its Pixel smartphone that uses sensors to detect an impact and then sounds an alarm and if the user doesn’t respond, it alerts the emergency services.
The devices we carry on us usually have sensors capable of detecting these kinds of circumstances of this type; designing ways to use these sensors to detect simply depends on the creativity of developers. The latest version of the Apple Watch operating system incorporates an alert for exposure to excessive noise levels, for example, that works very reliably. Uber is testing a feature on its app that allows users to record the audio during their trip if they feel unsafe. There are now a range of personal safety apps, many designed with women in mind.
More and more devices now allow their sensors to be used in this way, allowing on the one hand functions that can save lives, but that can also create confusion in some situations. We will undoubtedly see more features of this kind for use in extremis. And as always, the key is to understand how the technology being used works, to know if they are activated and if other people around us are using them, how to act if we receive a notification, and also to understand their limitations: we can rely on them in some cases, but what about minor falls that might not set off the alarm but that could still be serious?
Anybody who is thinking of downloading a personal safety app or buying a product such as the Apple Watch would do well to fully familiarize themselves with how they function, rather than waiting until they actually need it. As they say in the Marines: hope for the best, plan for the worst.
(En español, aquí)