A couple years ago, “smart helmets” with HUD technology were going to the next big thing in motorcycling – and so far, nothing has been delivered. But the technology is still racing forward, and it’s only a matter of time until high-tech, fully integrated smart helmets are the new normal – check out what’s coming here!
Two years ago, I wrote this article talking about the emergence of HUD (heads-up display) technology in the motorcycle industry, and about how a handful of startups were using it to make riding a motorcycle both safer and more engaging. The technology was exciting and the promises were big, and it was easy to believe that interactive, in-helmet projection displays showing all sorts of real-time data were going to be the next big thing.
Two years later, HUD is still, for the most part, just pie-in-the-sky. The Skully AR-1, probably the most anticipated (and hyped-up) new helmet of all time, has still not been released, and early supporters who shelled out around $1500 for their units have gone through delay after frustrating delay awaiting its release. Nuviz, the modular HUD unit designed to be attached to the outside of an existing helmet, is also still not released; in fact, refunds were issued to early supporters on Kickstarter after Nuviz apparently couldn’t deliver their product to market.
Now I know what you’re probably thinking: “Wow, a couple Silicon Valley start-ups raised millions on crowd-funding sites with promises of world-changing technology – and didn’t deliver? You don’t say…” I know, it’s a tired narrative, and plenty of naysayers were already calling it vaporware a long time ago. The first round of HUD motorcycle helmets, much like the ill-fated Google Glass, might have been just too ambitious in their scope and too ahead of their time to really work on the market, even if they did ever reach it – which so far, they haven’t.
The Skully AR-1 was the first ever foray into “smart helmet” technology, and one of the most successful crowd-funding projects of all time – but two years after it kicked off, still not a single unit has been delivered.
But I still think HUD and other “smart helmet” technology is coming soon to the motorcycle world, and I think it will change motorcycle riding in a big way once it gets off the ground. Just because a few tech start-ups have over-promised and under-delivered doesn’t mean the concept itself is flawed; it just means they weren’t doing it right. But make no mistake about it – smart helmets are coming. There is too much technology we riders can enjoy and benefit from for it not to become “a thing.”
The Growth of Smart Helmet Technology
HUD – a see-through display with information projected onto it for the operator of a vehicle to see – is just one type of device that falls under the umbrella of “smart helmet technology.” HUD is cool stuff, but there are plenty of other ways that shell of fiberglass and foam on your head can be turned from a passive safety product into an active device that connects you to your ride, to your bike, and to the world, in an immersive way.
For example, Sena, a leader in motorcycle communication systems, recently introduced the INC, or Intelligent Noise Cancelling helmet, which uses “smart” technology as a way to solve the problem of harmful wind noise for riders by using a system of microphones, a noise-cancelling microprocessor, and ear-cups with embedded speakers. Might sound like a complicated substitute for $0.50 earplugs, but the INC doesn’t just block all sounds, it amplifies the ones you want, and blocks out the ones you don’t (call it “hearing 2.0.”) And because it’s from Sena, the whole thing can be paired with your smart phone for full device connectivity too.
The Sena INC helmet is “smart” to the extent that it uses integrated technology to solve riders problems, like ambient noise and device connectivity. But HUD and other display-based concepts will have to wait – the Sena provides only audio solutions in the INC.
The Sena solves several problems for riders, but its solutions are all audio-based – to really be next-gen, smart helmets need to integrate video solutions too. Motorcycle riders love their action cameras, and the next generation of smart helmets will start integrating cameras directly, instead of using awkward, bulky mounts to attach them.
Take, for example, the new collaboration between Bell and 360fly that resulted in the new Bell Star and Moto9 Flex with built-in cameras. The camera technology itself is impressive, as it films in 360 degrees, allowing you to pan around and view any angle of the footage during replay, but it also has built-in wifi and Bluetooth for seamless integration with phones and tablets, along with built-in GPS for geo-tagging. The best part – you can remove the camera, so you can use it in other applications, and upgrade it easily too.
New helmets from Bell, in collaboration with camera company 360fly, have integrated cameras that film in 360 degrees full time for an awesome immersive experience. They can also be removed, for use in other applications, or for easy upgrading when new models come out.
But there are only so much of us that ride with cameras for vanity’s sake, and personally, I don’t happen to be one of them – I don’t feel the need to film my rides, and add them to the sea of video of other people’s rides that all look the same. But where I would see the need for a camera is as a safety device. Whether it’s to film a distracted driver plowing into me, get a road rage incident on video, or to defend myself against an unfair ticket from a cop, there are plenty of ways I could see a motorcycle camera benefitting me as a rider. And if a camera with an in-helmet display could help me keep an eye on my six, replacing the near useless mirrors on most bikes, so much the better.
This is where “smart helmets” really get fun. The Skully AR-1 integrates a rear-facing, wide-angle “blind spot” camera into the helmet, and broadcasts the feed into the HUD display, creating essentially the most effective rear-view mirror imaginable. To take is a step further, the Intelligent Cranium iC-R – probably the most ambitious “smart helmet” project to date – uses two rear-facing cameras and two HUD displays along with an early collision warning system, and even has a built-in solar panel to keep it juiced up on a ride! These ideas are impressive, but riders who like to film their rides (i.e. the gadget guys that will probably buy this stuff to begin with) will be left wanting more, as neither has a front facing camera, nor do they record.
The prototype Intelligent Cranium iC-R helmet doubles down on both camera and HUD technology, with two rear-facing cameras and two HUD displays, to create a 210-degree field of view without a rider ever having to turn their head.
For the most part, it’s been start-ups playing in this space, which probably has a lot to do with why the technology has struggled to make it to market. Until a major manufacturer steps into the game, it probably wont become mainstream – but that may have finally happened late last year.
BMW recently announced it’s own new smart helmet concept, which features a helmet that would pair with the motorcycle itself, using a HUD display to show relevant info like speed, engine RPM, fuel level, tire pressure, and so on. But they also promise even more useful future applications such as turn-by-turn navigation, camera with recording, and blind spot monitoring. BMW has the resources, the know-how, and the presence to pull this off, and it wouldn’t be the first time the innovative company took new motorcycle technology and made it mainstream.
BMW is the biggest, most established company to enter the smart helmet space, recently introducing this concept HUD helmet that pairs to both your BMW motorcycle and to mobile devices.
But the future of HUD and smart helmets may actually not even come from the motorcycle world at all. Intel recently displayed a concept “smart helmet” geared toward industrial uses, which uses a combination of HUD, thermal imaging, and virtual reality technology to give workers a computer-aided view of equipment to detect and fix problems that otherwise would be invisible to the naked eye. Microsoft has something similar, the recently introduced Hololens, a cross between HUD and virtual reality goggles that will have widespread applications from computer-aided design to gaming.
Intel’s first foray into smart HUD/virtual reality helmets is geared toward industrial safety, but the technology is impressive, and could easily be adapted into motorcycle helmets.
The Smart Helmet is Coming
With heavy hitters like Intel, Microsoft, and BMW entering the space, it’s only a matter of time until HUD devices and smart helmets become mainstream. The technology is all there, and we know riders can benefit from it – they already wear helmets, they are at the most risk on the road, and already tend to make large investments in both safety gear and their devices. Whoever makes a helmet that checks the boxes of both making riders safer and integrating or replacing all their devices at a reasonable price is going to have a winner on their hands.
Unlike other “virtual reality” devices, the recently announced Microsoft Hololens gives a computer-aided, holographic view of the real world, instead of immersing you into a digital one. If adapted to motorcycling, a solution like this could take riding to the next level in unimaginable ways.
What I think the smart helmet that finally becomes “a thing” will need is:
- A shell made by an established helmet manufacturer
- An integrated rear-facing “blind spot” camera with live feed to a HUD display
- An integrated front-facing camera with ability to record video and audio, along with video-tagging (a feature that lets you save a previous block of time with the push of a button if something happens)
- An integrated speaker/microphone system that will pair with smart phones, allowing music streaming, placing calls, and turn-by-turn navigation, all displayed onto the HUD
- A modular design, allowing the devices to be upgraded easily when new models come out without replacing the helmet
- Easy charging with a single USB cord
- A price of under $1000
These are the essentials in my opinion; riders will not flock to buy a smart helmet if it doesn’t have those features.
But once the market for that is proven, things will get a lot more fun. Like smart phones, once a device becomes “smart,” there’s no limit to what you can do with it. I think the smart helmets of the future will have really exciting features like data acquisition (similar to systems found on some top-end sport motorcycles), integrated night-vision, graphical overlays showing where your buddies are or what line to take on a track, and much more!
What do you think the future holds for “smart motorcycle helmets,” and what features would you like to see?