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David Zax

A View from David Zax

Biking with Your Brain

A concept bike offers riders a new incentive to wear a helmet: it’s embedded with a mind-reading device that lets you shift gears using brainwaves.

  • August 10, 2011

Last week, we presented the idea that that you could successfully brake your car using just your brain. The researchers showed that by taking EEG and EMG readings, a smart car could read your intent to brake before you had time to physically do so, reducing the brake distance (according to simulations) by about 13 feet. But, as the article’s author Kristina Bjoran noted, “The research may never lead to a fully automated braking system.” A car is too heavy a machine, and braking too crucial a task, for us to currently feel comfortable delegating such a task.

So what if we lower the stakes a little?

That’s essentially what Toyota Prius and Parlee Cycles have done. Over the last few months, Parlee, with Toyota’s backing, has been designing a bicycle inspired (in some vague sense) by the Prius. And although Priuses don’t yet employ brain-braking technology, one innovation the Parlee team struck on was this: using a “neurohelmet” that can read its wearer’s mind, transmitting hands-free commands to gear the bike up and down. Braking your Prius with your brain is too risky to try on the road; but mentally shifting gears of your Prius X Parlee (PXP) cycle? Safe enough for someone to have already tried it.

“We all watched in amazement as the bike began to shift,” wrote blogger John Watson, recently (he has diligently chronicled the journey of the PXP from design to implementation). “With each pedal stroke, the rider became more comfortable controlling his cadence and moving through the cassette.”

Strictly speaking, there’s no never-before-seen technological component in this set-up. Rather, it’s the way it’s all been mixed together that’s novel. “It’s a mash-up of new technologies,” said Patrick Miller, a senior creative engineer with DeepLocal, the firm that consulted on the bike’s electronics components. As he explains in this video: “We took some off the shelf technology, a neuroheadset, readily available, and we also took an electronic shifting system….We look at the brain waves people training themselves to say shift up or shift down, we take that, and we can shift the bicycle up and down.”

That’s only the beginning, though, he suggests: “Once we have all that information we can do all kinds of things. We can create automatic transmission, we can display what gear you’re in. If we have GPS coordinates, we could say, ‘Oh, every time you’re here, let’s shift to this, because that’s what you did before.’ There’s lots of ways to experiment with this.”

It’s not the only bike hack to have made news recently. A young man (seeking funding via Kickstarter) is proposing to make an electronic turn-signal system for safety-conscious cyclists. Essentially, it’s a glove the cyclist wears on his left hand, equipped with the same accelerometer technology found in your smartphone, plus a light pattern sewn onto the back of the glove. Reach your arm all the way out, and the back of your hand becomes a left-turn signal. Bend your arm at the elbow (the accepted signal for a right turn), and all of a sudden, you’re broadcasting a right arrow. “It provides a giant yellow chevron in the direction that you want it, right when you need it,” says Jack O’Neal, designer of the YouTurn, as his idea is tentatively called, on a video on his Kickstarter page.

A mind-controlled gear system and an accelerometer-enabled turn signal system, then, could soon be part of the tech geek’s ultimate bike. What other features would you include in your own personal bike hack? In my experience, the technology that would be the greatest boon to much urban biking would be a device—a rocket launcher, perhaps?—to swiftly extract all the offending vehicles double-parked in the bike lane.

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