Essency Awareness! Situational Awareness App, Now Free for Some Etymotic Users

Since I wrote my "Headphones Can Kill You" article two months ago, I've seen in my news feeds at least three more people killed by trains while wearing headphones. Unbelievable … but sadly true. While I'm sure InnerFidelity readers are smart enough to stay off the tracks, there are plenty of other hazards out there --- I've almost been hit at the grocery store parking lot before. And don't you just hate it when the stewardess' lips move but you've got to pull out the earphones only to hear her ask if you want some lousy peanuts?

Well, now there's something you can do about it.

Awareness! iPhone Situational Awareness App
Etymotic hf2 and mc3 headset owners will be glad to know that Etymotic is making this cool little app available free for owners who register their product on Etymotic's website. Awareness! (by Essency, a U.K. firm) is also available for $1.99 on iTunes in it's original form for folks with other cans.

The app listens to the mike on your headset (or the iPhone's internal mike if regular headphones without mike are connected) and when the outside noise level rises above the preset value, it feeds the mike signal to your headphones so you can hear the outside world. It's a great way to regain some of your situational awareness for office workers, motorcyclists, bicyclists, runners, and action sport shredders of all stripes.

It's a bit more complicated than that, of course, and the app provides numerous settings. All features are enabled for the free Etymotic version of the app once you register your cans, and receive and enter the unlock code. The Essency app from iTunes will nickel and dime you to turn on the features one at a time. From their website:

    AutoPause - NEW (59p/99c In App Purchase) Pauses and resumes music when the outside noise exceeds the set mic threshold so you never miss a thing! Great for audio books too. Only Works with the iPod Player.

    AutoSet - (59p/99c In App Purchase) AutoSet listens to the sounds around you and automatically sets a microphone threshold to make sure you hear anything above normal background noise. AutoSet comes on each time Awareness! is started or when the button on the main screen is tapped.

    AutoSet Plus - (£1.19/$1.99 In App Purchase) Advanced version of  AutoSet, checks and adjusts the mic threshold at a set interval of your choice ranging from every 30 secs to every 5 minutes (displayed in the UI). Great on the move.

    Bypass/Mic - INCLUDED Switches the mic on or off whatever the threshold setting, useful for when you just want to have a quick listen to what’s going on around them.

    ClearVoice (59p/99c In App Purchase) Makes any speech picked up by the microphone clearer and easier to hear.

    dB Noise Meter - NEW (59p/99c In App Purchase) Upgrades the app meter to a Noise Meter which measures environmental noise and displays it as a Sound Pressure Level (SPL) measured in decibels. Featuring average dB and dBA scales.

    Ducking  - INCLUDED Lowers the music when the mic is triggered and turns it back up when outside noise drops to normal levels. Note: although functional there’s a bug in iOS at the moment that stops this function from working as smoothly as it should, we’re hoping Apple fix it soon.

    Vibrate / Noise Alarm - INCLUDED
Makes an 'i'device vibrate when the mic threshold is exceeded. This turns Awareness! into a useful noise alarm that could warn users when they are exposed to dangerous environmental noise levels. Can be used in conjunction with the dB Noise Meter. Note: Will not work with iPod player but works with all other audio apps.

    VoiceOver UI - NEW (59p/99c In App Purchase) Awareness! was rebuilt from the ground up to incorporate a simplified UI that's optimized for VoiceOver.

I'd recommend the AutoPause if you're using the normal iPod app to play your music. Essency's web site says it works with games and audio books. When I used Pandora or Netflix it didn't mute the sound, though. The included "Ducking" feature didn't work for them either.

Auto Set and AutoSet Plus seems to work reasonable well. Kind of a toss up there. I like playing with the levels manually, but if you're on a bicycle or in changing sound environments, the AutoSet Plus will just keep resetting the levels automatically as you go and you won't have to futz with it, so that's pretty cool.

The Clear Voice option EQs the sound so it's a little warmer and less tinny over the mike, but I don't think I'd pay for it. I think the somewhat brighter outside response will give you fine speech intelligibility.

The VoiceOver UI is a simplified interface if you don't like the knobs and dials. I'm a button pushin', gadget kinda guy, so I wouldn't buy it. If you're not a geek, however, and are a little widget challenged, or are getting it for someone who is, you might like it.

This app works on: iOS4.1 or later; iPhone4 or 3GS and iPod Touch 4; iPad with iOS 4.2 or above; iPod Touch 3 with headset; will NOT work on iPhone 3G and will NOT work with wireless or Bluetooth headsets.

It took me a little while to get the hang of it. Setting the mike delay properly is important, otherwise wind and noise from the cable mike rubbing on clothes will set it off. Once you master the controls it works great, however. I think I detected a slight decrease in sound quality, though it might have been just a level shift when it's turned on. It'll trigger when people call for your attention, or start talking near you, or when the train whistle bows. (Get off the train tracks, damn it!) Definitely recommended.

Resources after the video.

The Essency web site is really informative and quick read.

Etymotic users can go to the Awareness! page on Etymotic's web site to register their cans and get it free.

The iTunes store has the Essency Awareness! app.

Stay safe out there, folks.

Etymotic Reasearch
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Elk Grove Village, IL 60007

schalliol's picture

If you control your surroundings generally, open headphones not only give great sound, but they allow you to be disturbed if there's a reason for it.

dumbo's picture


Personally, I'm very unhappy with this app because, while it has tremendous potential, it's so poorly designed that it's virtually useless to me. Most of the time I want maximum isolation from ALL environmental noise (not just background noise). In those situations I need to be able to decide when I engage in a conversation and I don't want to be pulling my ear phones out every time that happens. As it stands the only way to engage the mic is go through an idiotically lengthy process of pulling out my phone, unlocking it, going into the app and then turning on the mic. How much would it have taken to have a feature where  one could quickly hit the earphone controller  "pause" button to  activate the mic????  This is an unbelievably stupid design.

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dumbo's picture

I got this app as soon as I got my Etymotic HF3/ACS custom earplug setup. I had hoped to be able to use the "Bypass/Mic" to avoid having to take my earphones every time I wanted to exchange few words with someone. There are times (such as sitting in a coffee shop) when I want to completely isolate myself while, at the the same time have the ability to cut the music and have a normal conversation without taking out my earphones. The thing that makes this app completely useless to me is the fact that "Bypass/Mic" feature can only be accessed from interface (which means you need to keep your phone's screen on and drain your battery). The thing that would make this a truly useful app would be to make it so that hitting the stop switch on the inline volume control activated the "Bypass/Mic" feature. It is absurd that the idiots who designed this app didn't add this simple feature so that it would be practical for all settings.

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Stefaniasail's picture

I can’t believe that someone would be walking on tracks with headphones on, knowing that they could potentially get hit by a train. This is reckless to say the least. If a person consciously or subconsciously is aiming for self-destruction, no app will help. However for everyone else I could definitely see this situational awareness app helping in different unexpected situations. There was a story on about a person whose life was saved when a dog he was running with started to bark really loud. The guy stops, takes off his headphones and hears an approaching car that was speeding right at him without headlights. So if he was without his dog, but with this app same thing, he would be saved.

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