The use of portable entertainment devices with headphones like the iPhone and iPod have led to some unfortunate pedestrian accidents when users failed to hear approaching danger. Being an “iPod Zombie” as many in the media have dubbed this behavior can be very hazardous to your health. Though now iPhone and iPod touch users can use essency’s Awareness! app to listen to music and still be able to hear other sounds around them. We took Awareness! for a spin to see if it worked as advertised and found that it can indeed be helpful to help you stay aware of what’s going on around you while using headphones on your iPhone or iPod touch.
Awareness! essentially uses the microphones in your iPhone and your headphones (if there is one) to “listen” for sounds around you and pipes those sounds to you through the headphones if they reach a certain threshold. The app automatically sets this threshold when you open it, listening for ambient noise to determine when sounds should be piped through to your ears. The quieter your surrounding environment, the lower this threshold will be.
You must have a pair of wired headphones attached to your iPhone or iPod touch for the app to work. It does not work with Bluetooth headphones or headsets. If you don’t have any headphones connected, you’ll see this screen when you open the app:
essency provides an overview of the app’s main screen to show you what everything means and does, which is handy since not everything is obvious when you first try it out and there’s no in-app help or reference material:
Awareness! will continue to run in the background when you go to another application, leaving you free to choose something to listen to in the iPod app, Pandora, or some other audio application. When it comes to settings, you can choose how quickly Awareness! starts to pipe sounds through to you have the threshold is reached, chose whether or not the app will autoset itself based on ambient noise each time you turn it on, and more.
The Ducking feature automatically decreases the volume of the music or whatever you’re listening to when Awareness! activates the microphone, though essency notes that this feature is not working as expected due to an issue in iOS 4 that Apple will address in a future update.
We tested Awareness! in a busy Starbucks with a pair of V-Moda Remix Remote in-ear headphones, which provide a bit more sound isolation compared to the headphones that come with the iPhone 4. The app automatically set a reasonable threshold to allow us to hear the louder noises around us, including when someone asked us in a normal tone of voice to borrow a chair from our table. At home, the app blissfully kept random neighborhood sounds from interrupting our music listening but piped through dog barks warning us of an approaching visitor.
If you have your headphones on only to block out ambient noise and are not listening to music, Awareness! also offers a vibrate mode that will activate the iPhone’s vibrate motor when an external sound has exceeded the set threshold. This feature only works when the microphone switch in the app is off.
The iPhone’s status bar will turn red and pulsate to let you know when Awareness! is running in the background. To turn the app off, you need to tap on the power button in the app at the bottom of the screen.
You can listen in on everything around you without waiting for the set threshold to be reached by tapping on the microphone icon on the right – this will allow you to hear everything around you along with your music. While this somewhat defeats the purpose of using the app to only hear the louder noises around you, it can be handy if you simply want to hear more of what’s going on around you at any given time.
Due to the location of the microphone on our V-Moda headphones, we found that the app sometimes transmitted the sound of it rubbing against clothing as we moved. This was the only negative we encountered and we think it was entirely dependent on the headphones we used – you’ll likely have a different experience depending on the headphones you use with it.
essency has created a demo video to show how Awareness! works, which is helpful to give you a live preview of how the app functions:
We’re impressed by essency’s ingenuity here and think Awareness! is a worthy purchase at $4.99 for anyone who uses headphones in public. Though Awareness! does do what it promises and we think it’s a great app to get if you use headphones regularly and still want to hear what’s going on around you, it shouldn’t replace common sense. You shouldn’t rely on this or any other app to keep you safe from harm – use your headphones only when it’s safe for you and those around you to do so. We didn’t test Awareness! while crossing busy downtown streets or while running with wild bulls and neither should you.