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Apps that prevent you from using your phone

Marketplace Staff Oct 11, 2010

Apps that prevent you from using your phone

Marketplace Staff Oct 11, 2010


Kai Ryssdal: A couple of weeks ago, Massachusetts became the 30th state in the Union to ban texting while driving. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood calls fiddling with your cell phone behind the wheel an epidemic, and he’d like to see a national ban on it.

Technology being what it is, though, there’s a whole slew of new smart phone apps out there to help people curb their texting addictions. Hiawatha Bray is the technology reporter for the Boston Globe. We’ve gotten him on the line to see what works and what doesn’t.

Hiawatha, good to have you here.

Hiawatha Bray:Glad to be here.

RYSSDAL: So there are a bunch of different apps that help you not text while you’re driving. Run down the list for me, would you?

BRAY: I think they fall into two basic categories: You’ve got the kind that are designed to actually stop you, to make you stop using the phone.

RYSSDAL: Aggressively too, right, with some emphasis?

BRAY: Absolutely. And then there are the other ones, which I think are a little dicier, which are trying to help you find a way around it by allowing you to do it by talking into the phone and listening to incoming texts, instead of pecking away on a screen or a keyboard.

RYSSDAL: Now there is one of these that basically is an incentive program — it rewards you in a way for not texting and driving?

BRAY: It’s called Safe Cell App, and it’s written by some people who really understand the problem here. These blocking programs that stop you from texting will only work if you voluntarily use them, and you can always turn them off. So they came up with a way to make you turn it on — they pay you. The idea is that when you turn it on, it blocks all the functions of your phone but the GPS unit inside tracks how far you’ve driven. It keeps count how many miles you’ve gone. Every 500 miles, you’re entitled to a $5 gift card. The average American drives 12,000 miles a year; if you do that, you’re entitled to $120 worth of gifts just for turning this app on, which locks out your phone and keeps you from texting while driving.

RYSSDAL: Alright, but if you absolutely have to positively text while you drive, there are some ways to do it, at least moderately safely. I have actually borrowed my producer’s iPhone, because I don’t actually let myself have one of those, ’cause I’d be playing with it all the time. We loaded up something called Vlingo, it’s an app called Vlingo, and that’s one of those which takes your voice and turns it into text, right?

BRAY: Absolutely.

RYSSDAL: All right, so we’re going to try it out, I’ve got this thing loaded up, I have unlocked her phone. “Hiawatha Bray.”

BRAY: Aren’t you supposed to say, “Call Hiawatha Bray”?

RYSSDAL: I don’t know, we’ll try. Here we go. So this is a problem, because by now, I’ve wrecked my car. If I’m driving with this thing, I’d have wrapped it around the telephone pole.

BRAY: In fairness, you have to learn a vocabulary. If you want to send a text, you have to say, “Send message to” or if you want to make a call, you say “Call” and then you give the number.

RYSSDAL: All right, here we go. “Call Hiawatha Bray.” No, I got Alabine, or -burn. So we’re not going to call her. We’ll try it again.

BRAY: Hang on, let me try it with you. I’m going to see if I can get it to work on your end. “Send message to Kai Ryssdal.” Ugh, send message to Karen. It did indeed open up a text window, it just didn’t send it to the right person.

RYSSDAL: By the way, just for the record, I’m like a trained radio professional, and this thing can’t figure out my voice?

BRAY: No, it gets worse. I’ve done this in a closed environment, and they work pretty well for me. But when you get into a car, all bets are off.

RYSSDAL: Because road noise and all that other stuff, right?

BRAY: Exactly. The future of this is an acoustic system that’s built right into the car that can make allowances for all that. That’s what Ford has with the Sync technology. The problem is that right now, they still haven’t figured out a way to sync a lot of these functions on smart phones, including texting, with the Ford Sync technology. And Ford has basically been begging the cell phone industry, will you please make your Bluetooth profiles for your phone compatible with Sync, so people can text with their voices? That hasn’t happened yet.

RYSSDAL: So here’s the thing though, it occurs to me: “Hiawatha” and “Kai” are not in the common lexicon. Right?

BRAY: You got it. That’s part of the problem, they’re very unusual names and so that’s one reason it’s having trouble. But so what? The fact is this shows the major limitations that still exist in speech recognition, especially with a handheld device that isn’t the most powerful computer.

RYSSDAL: So the moral of this story is, not only should you not text while driving, you shouldn’t really play with any of these applications that let you do voice-detect while driving, because you’ll kill yourself.

BRAY: You shouldn’t even call your mother, just put the phone down and drive.

RYSSDAL: Hiawatha Bray, he’s the technology reporter at the Boston Globe. Thanks a lot.

BRAY: Oh thank you.

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