August 30, 2006 5:25 PM PDT

Smart helmet points out the potholes

What if a bike helmet could warn you about a pothole in the road? What if the airport arrivals-and-departures screens could sell you a Sprite?

Then you'd be living in Ted Selker's world, where design meets intelligent computing. A research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab, Selker invented these gadgets, among others, out of a desire to make his life and the environment a little bit smarter.

Take the Smart Helmet, a functional headpiece he invented five years ago after reaching a boiling point about inadequate roads and bad drivers in the Boston area. (He commutes by bike from Arlington, Mass., to MIT's campus in Cambridge about three times a week.) Now, the shiny BMX-adapted bike helmet is nearly perfect, he says.

Smart Helmet

What can it do? It can play music or audio books, with hook-ups for an iPod or tape cassette. It can record speech through built-in microphones, and GPS (Global Positioning System) warns the wearer of hazards on a given route. It also can detect important sounds like a fire siren to mute music when necessary. It has a Motorola cell phone with Bluetooth installed so a bicyclist can talk on the phone, hands-free.

Also, wearers can tip their heads to the left to turn the left-side blinker on at the back of the helmet. Set the helmet down on a kitchen counter and it will turn itself off, thanks to installed motion detectors. If the wearer yells at an unruly motorist, the helmet will activate a horn at a higher decibel than the human noise. Selker said this feature helps keep him out of trouble with motorists.

"As a bicyclist, people don't like it when I yell," said Selker, a professor of context-aware computing and industrial design intelligence at MIT's Media Lab.

"One of the problems wearable computers have had in the past is--why would you wear something that would complicate the freewheeling feeling of walking around unencumbered?" Selker said. "I want to make something that people already wear or use, but better."

The helmet exemplifies Selker's work on gizmos that mediate communication between people and the environment and create a kind of virtual city that enhances the ones we live in. He's working on hundreds of other projects that meld intelligent design with everyday objects or industrial ones.

The vending machine is one. He has helped develop a working model of a vending machine that doesn't look like a vending machine. Rather than the typical Pepsi logo that wraps most soda machines, the machine has a video screen display with arrival and departure times for flights. That way, an airport could save money on signage, but also sell sodas in a way that's less intrusive to the environment.

In another version, the screen includes an interactive word game much like Scrabble that encourages passersby to make a word from a set of letters. As people contribute to the game over time, it reflects the community's input.

MIT plans to show the working model of the vending machine at an upcoming Digital Life conference in New York.

Looks normal

From the outside, the Smart Helmet looks normal. It's a black, shiny BMX helmet designed to block wind noise. It has a chin bar with a built-in microphone near the mouth that muffles external noise, too. Business calls are typically off-limits for Selker, however, because he breathes too heavily while riding.

Inside, the helmet has a PIC processor that controls everything from turning blinkers on to recording voice commands. A built-in accelerometer--a device that measures acceleration or the helmet's own motion--detects when the wearer gets bumped or nods his head, which then causes the chip to activate various commands.

Selker has built about four versions of the Smart Helmet since 2001, and each time he adds a new idea or function. For example, he wanted the first model to simply let him talk on a cell phone and listen to music with ease. For that, he began working with different headpieces and microphones and eventually built software that applied linguistic analysis to interpret various ambient sounds and discern which were important. That way, the helmet would stop playing music, for example, when an ambulance siren was sounding off.

The downside of the first version, however, was that the software required the computing power of a huge Sony PC, making the helmet too cumbersome.

So in the follow-up version, he downsized the code to discern only the volume and pitch of noises, giving the helmet roughly the same functionality as its predecessor. "If it's loud enough, the computer listens to it," he said. Now, the system has a few hundred lines of C programming without an entire PC in the helmet.

The newest Smart Helmet, finished this summer, lets the bicyclist shake his head to turn on a microphone, which then records a voice command. For example, if Selker runs into a blind spot at an intersection or a pothole in the road, he can activate the microphone by shaking his head and then say "bad intersection" or "dangerous hole." With GPS technology installed, the helmet will then detect when Selker is traveling near those same spots another day and turn on the recorded audio.

"I live in Boston, where there are typically no street signs," he said. "With the helmet, I can shake my head, and say, 'Massachusetts Avenue,' and create a virtual city."

Selker said the helmet would sell for about $200 in a store, without the costs of a connected iPod or cell phone. Still, he has yet to commercialize the helmet. "I'm the only one who uses it. Making a prototype is hard," he said.

He envisions the next version will have the ability to make connections with other bicyclists. With a Bluetooth device, which has a unique identifier, the helmet could detect others on the road with the same technology who, for example, share the same route.

"Your devices could broker a relationship and make you both aware of one another, so one of you could say, 'Hey,' and start a conversation," Selker said.

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12 comments

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Clarification, and a better idea
First off, Cheers to Selker for being "one less car." I have a theory that if everyone in America was forced to commute to work on a bicycle for just one week... this country would be a better place.

But, as I was reading this article this line stuck out:
"It's a black, shiny BMX helmet designed to block wind noise."

Now I'm not an expert, but I've been riding and racing bicyles for a long time and I'm fairly confident I can say that all bicycle helmets, especially BMX helmets, are not DESIGNED to block wind noise. Maybe Selker chose this helmet because its does cut down on wind noise compared to a regular bicycle helmet, but that's not what it was designed for.

Also, here's some food for thought. I used to live in Arlington and commute all the way to the Back Bay on my bicycle. The ride took about 25 minutes on a bad day. I usually passed MIT 10 or 15 minutes into the ride. I've since moved to Chicago and still commute to downtown on my trusty Moots.

Now I recognize the bigger idea Selker is working on here, but I find it sad when people can't go that long without talking on their cell phones or listening to their iPods. Here's a better idea... why not just pay attention to the road and ride your bike while enjoying the wind, speed, and freedom two self-propelled wheels brings you.

There's so much happening on Mass Ave (especially through Harvard Sq. and Central) that you absolutely must watch what you're doing. Frankly, I find bicyclist talking on their cells phones more annoying and dangerous than motorists. Why do you think you never see a city bike messenger riding around with iPod ear plugs in his/her ears?
Posted by scottolbury (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Bingo!
I agree with you, there is no need to be yacking while riding. The drivers and other obstacles do not look out for you. And you need to look out for pedestrians and everything else.
It is one thing to design something like the Bose noise-cancelling for wind, but another to allow distractions.
Hey, American Cancer Society! When you have your bike-a-thons, you should have everyone sign a disclaimer: no ipods, no cellphones used unless stopped.
If you can't ride a bike without (loud) tunes or yacking, you shouldn't be riding a bike. (yeah, if you listen in one ear, great, but you are not that important for a call)
Posted by Below Meigh (249 comments )
Link Flag
Just what we need
Very cute.

However, after years of research on cell phone use while driving, it has been noted that people driving while using a cell phone have the same reaction time as someone who's drunk (hands free or not).

So, what happens? Smeone puts a cell phone in a bicycle helmit.

Brilliant.

Just because you CAN do something, doesn't mean you should.
Posted by Mergatroid Mania (8395 comments )
Reply Link Flag
NOT very smart
The last thing you need cycling in urban conditions is distraction from music etc...also will be heavy and therefore tiring and also hot so will end up left in the bike shed
Posted by makuk (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
I have found that it is calming to not be alone and quiet for the 30 minutes each way that i drive or ride to work. I was surprised to find it much easier to deal with and remember things I am listening on my bike than my car.
Yes there is a lot to pay attention to, 80% l my accidents in my 10 years of commuting in cambridge Massachussets happened in the first 2 years before i started using parts of the helmet communication systems. Yes it was because i was learning where to look, that i had to slow down and move into traffic in specific situations to avoid being doored, etc.
6 mile commute all of which had parallel parked cars!
Anticipate! avoid! announce!
Posted by tedselker (3 comments )
Link Flag
Brilliant !!
Actually i am Helmet supportter and use helmet quite a lot. Besides these all features I have some creative additions.
1. U can install a small camera so that u can see the rear view of the vehicle. may be its a little good camera like night vision or light reduction kind of capacity and we can see the rear view in helmet glass. (Agree there is a rear mirror but it is useless once the vehicle throws bright light on it.)

2. we can cover helmet with a air tight material and use air purifier to inhale pure air, as in countries like India there is lots of pollution in cities.

3. Also it can be used to lock unlock ur bike via bluetooth. If u r near bike with helmet, it unlocks and when u go away from bike with helmet it automatically locks the ignition.
Posted by kulbhushan_bhalerao (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
1.a rear veiw camera is an excellent idea , especially because it can be lined up more stably than any mirror on a helmet, but ooops to be high it wants to be on the helmet.

2. I ride with the chinbar to heat the air in the winter.

3. This is a bicycle helmet, but bluetooth connection could be used for bike computers and your ideas are great for scooters and motorcycles
Posted by tedselker (3 comments )
Link Flag
Bright idea
Research from countries that introduces bike helmet laws forcing millions of cyclists to wear helmets, leads to doubts about the ability of a relatively thin piece of polystyrene to protect against serious head injuries (see <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.cyclehelmets.org/papers/c2022.pdf" target="_newWindow">http://www.cyclehelmets.org/papers/c2022.pdf</a> or <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.cyclehelmets.org/mf.html?1171" target="_newWindow">http://www.cyclehelmets.org/mf.html?1171</a>).

Perhaps the safest thing about a bike helmet is being bright coloured to increase the chance of being seen by motorists. This seems to be true for motorcycle helmets (<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://bmj.bmjjournals.com/cgi/content/abstract/328/7444/857" target="_newWindow">http://bmj.bmjjournals.com/cgi/content/abstract/328/7444/857</a>

This helmet is black!!!

A really smart helmet would also be available in bright colours.
Posted by Dorre1 (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
I do have 4 friends that broke helmets and had no head injuries...

It is true that the helmet that i typically wore with the technology was silver, but the running lights are the bright part.
Posted by tedselker (3 comments )
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