MIT Media Lab researcher Arlene Ducao has worked on developing a safer bike helmet for riders as part of her research. She sent WGBH News this article for our Right of Way series, a collaboration with Wicked Local.
MindRider was my initial project as a Research Assistant in the MIT Media Lab's Information Ecology group. Its predecessor was Lumenhattio, a helmet+light cap I'd worked on at The DuKode Studio in Brooklyn. Why this particular combo? Lights have been stolen from bike more than once, which is why I started putting lights on my helmet, which I always carry with me. Also, safety has been an underlying concern with all my helmet+light projects; even after years of daily bike commuting through heavy traffic and urban environments, I still feel vulnerable as a cyclist amidst cars, trucks, and buses.
In developing MindRider, I experimented with several of the new consumer EEG (electroencephalography) devices on the market. While waiting for these devices to arrive, I asked my adviser, Henry Holtzman, for his thoughts on EEGs in games and toys. I mentioned that I wanted to use EEG as a possible switching device for helmet lights. He said that explicit control of the lights seemed likely to be unreliable, and pointed me towards using the EEG as a passive gauge of bio-activity, rather than as an active switch. Since incorporating the EEG hardware into the helmet, which includes single-electrode, dry EEG sensors, NeuroSky's TGAM, Arduino, and Eric Mika's Arduino-Brain-Library, I've learned much about how EEG has been used in HCI (Human Computer Interaction) and how this kind of simple setup is, indeed, best for passive applications. The takeaway: single EEG sensors are not great switches.
Regularly demonstrating MindRider for the Media Lab has inspired real-world applications for this invention. Suggestions have ranged from the simple and feasible, such as making the LED light more visible to the helmet wearer, to more complex, such as integrating a camera or more types of biometric sensors ("sensor fusion"), and networking the helmet with Emergency Alert systems. I've seen research on the integration of EEG into other kinds of helmet applications, mostly for sports, emergency response, and the military. Syuzi Pakhchyan, creator of the great "Fashioning Technology" blog, has wondered if bio-gauging gadgetry should be packed into a helmet at all, considering that helmets are supposed to be light and protective.
Working on this project, in this time and place, has been a bit of a Cinderella experience, especially since the helmet's coverage in Wired UK, Boston Herald, and other outlets, including this one, has accelerated interest in a commercial product, so now I'm exploring possibilities for making this happen. Some say that with recent, major progress in personalized fabrication devices, "hardware is the new software" of startups. MindRider may test this notion to the limit, especially with the new hardware accelerator/incubator programs emerging right now.
Much of the interest in MindRider stemmed from Spencer Lowell's great photo in Wired UK. Since it came out, many people have sent me great comments, saying things along the lines of
"Women represent!" or
"POCs (People of Color) represent!" or
This has meant a lot. Women and people of color are still underrepresented in both tech and cycling domains, and I've come to think of the MindRider photo, and the ensuing response, as a personal counterbalance to the aggressive, intolerant, exclusionary discourse that still plagues these domains, and especially plagues the startup sector that overlaps both. Some people call this "brogrammer talk." I've witnessed it in my time at MIT, and while I've noticed that most people don't talk or think this way, the loudness of the intolerant minority can have insidious, stressful effects on the rest of the community.
As the MindRider project goes forward, I aim for these helmets to be developed and represented by all kinds of folks, who will hopefully encourage all kinds of usages for it. I'm really looking forward to working on MindRider this summer, and perhaps beyond, with The DuKode Studio's Ilias Koen and MIT's David Hill, two makers with very diverse experiences, and MIT Visiting Scholar Sandra Richter, who will use coupled MindRiders as data collection devices to quantitatively analyze gender in cycling.
If any aspect of the MindRider interests you, please be in touch!
Thanks to Junot Diaz for his help in planning parts of this piece.