Traffic lights of the future know when you want to cross the street

Computer vision saves you from having to push a button.

We wouldn't blame you for feeling that pedestrian crossing buttons are frustrating at best, and useless at worst. You might not always have a free hand, and they're so slow and clueless that it can be tempting to defy the red light. Austrian researchers might have a solution, though: have the traffic lights themselves determine your intentions. They've developed camera-equipped traffic lights that detect people who want to cross the street. The computer vision system scans a 26-by-15 feet area and sends a signal to the lights when it sees one or more people in the right position, all within a matter of seconds. It's three to four seconds faster than it would take to reach for a button, according to the scientists.

More importantly, it's flexible. It can extend green lights if there are large groups of pedestrians, and stick to red if people change their mind before the lights are ready. And yes, the team is aware of potential privacy issues. The imagery never leaves the camera, and it relies solely on geometric information to gauge intent. It couldn't recognize individuals even if it was fully connected

This isn't just a research project. The company Günther Pincher is rolling out the first such lights in the Vienna area, and intends to replace the button system in "selected locations" by the end of 2020. It could be a long time before they reach your part of the world, but there could come a day when you simply have to approach the curb to make the lights turn in your favor.