Can a zebra crossing change its stripes?

Story highlights

  • A smart crossing, powered by artificial intelligence, was installed temporarily in London in October
  • It is part of a wave of smart transport systems around the world that promise to bring safety and convenience

(CNN)Imagine a responsive pedestrian crosswalk that thinks for itself.

During rush hour, it automatically swells to accommodate more pedestrians. At quiet times, it disappears.
    If someone is playing on their phone while crossing, a warning pattern would appear on the ground to alert both them and nearby vehicles to the danger.
    That's exactly what London-based tech company Umbrellium has designed: the Starling Crossing is an interactive crosswalk that responds dynamically to its environment.
    And it could be the future of how we interact with our cities.
    "If you look around cities, there is technology dealing with so many different aspects of the way we relate to each other and our urban space," says Usman Haque, founder of Umbrellium.
    "But the crossings that we are familiar with were designed several decades ago, and the way that we use cities is quite different now. It's interesting that the crossing hasn't yet had that kind of update."

    Smart crossing

    Developed in England in the 1940s, the zebra crossing -- as it was called back then -- consists of a series of white stripes painted across a stretch of road, flanked by lights on each side, to offer pedestrians safe passage.
    The Starling Crossing keeps that familiar "zebra" pattern, but because its markings emerge from a 23 meter by 7.5 meter waterproof network of LED lights embedded into the road, it is able to modify its layout, size and even color on demand.
    The responsive surface of Starling Crossing protects pedestrians by illuminating the road to warn them of danger and guide them to safety.
    Here's how it works.
    Two cameras positioned at opposite ends of the road are programmed to take about 25 images of the street per second. The crossing's central nervous system processes these images, distinguishing between pedestrians, cyclists and cars.
    "Essentially, it has a classification system where it has learned what a car, a person, or a cyclist looks like -- from different angles," explains Haque. "It starts to recognize the features."
    Based on this information, the smart crossing can decide how to behave.
    The crossing also providers warning signals in situations where vehicles could cause blind spots for other road users.
    For example, if the system detects an elderly person, the crossing would stay illuminated for longer, to allow more time to cross the road.
    "One of the principles of an interactive crossing is that it should be able to learn over time the way that people use it," Haque says. "If people are crossing in the wrong place all the time, the system would move the crossing nearer to that location to make things safer."
    In October 2017, a Starling Crossing prototype was installed on a South London street for a month.
    User feedback, Haque says, was positive.
    Now the team has to work on rolling the crossing out in cities worldwide.