Google has been adding a few new accessibility features to its products lately and today’s update is something for those who might want help hearing things around them. Sound Notifications is rolling out to Android (and Wear OS) devices and it’ll use the microphone in your phone to listen for things like beeping appliances, running water or barking dogs. Then, it’ll send you a push notification, vibration or flash the light on your camera.
Since this means your microphone will be on all the time, there are of course concerns about privacy and battery drain. The feature is not enabled by default — you’ll have to go into your Accessibility settings to activate it, if you’re okay with your phone listening to your environment. If you don’t see the Sound Notifications option yet, you may have to download Live Transcribe and Sound Notifications from the Play Store.
After you set it up, Sound Notifications will warn you when it hears any of ten noises, including “baby sounds, water running, smoke and fire alarms, appliances beeping and door knocking.” Then, it’ll alert you on your phone or Wear OS watch that it’s detected something nearby and what the sound was. The smartwatch integration can be helpful to those who want to get alerted to critical sounds even when they’re asleep, which Google said is a concern for many in the deaf and hard of hearing community.
The company said this feature was developed with machine learning and that it works completely offline, so at least the audio of your environment isn’t being transmitted somewhere for processing. Google uses similar sound detection technology in its existing Live Transcribe feature to caption environmental noises to paint a better picture and provide context of what’s going on. Sometimes it’s not helpful to just know what sound your phone thinks it heard — you’ll need some additional information. Sound Notifications also has a timeline view to show you the events it identified in the hours before an alert so you can understand if your dog was barking at nothing or if it was flipping out at a passing ambulance.
Sound Notifications could be a useful tool for the hard of hearing, but it might also be helpful for those who have noise canceling headphones on while working from home. While there certainly are privacy concerns to be aware of, the offline processing and the potential benefits might help mollify users who want to try this feature.