Gadget-Filled Motorcycle Helmet On the Way

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For motorcyclists who are bored with the humdrum of tearing down the highway at eighty miles per hour, two UC Berkeley graduate students have a remedy.

Dan Steingart and Russell Romero, graduate students in materials science and mechanical engineering, respectively, are developing a system that will enable motorcycle riders to listen to music, talk on their cell phones, and receive directions from the Global Positioning System (GPS).

Using voice recognition software, all these functions are accomplished without the motorcyclist's needing to take his hands off the handlebars.

In professor Paul Wright's Mechanical Engineering 221 class on inconspicuous computing, Steingart and Romero were inspired to develop a system to improve motorcyclists' experience without drawing attention to the modifications. "Street bikers usually don't want anything added that you can see," said Romero.

Romero explained the pair's impetus for including the telephone, music and GPS in the system.

"Sometimes my phone rings in my pocket while I'm riding, and I have to pull over to talk," he said. "People say street bikes don't get boring, but they do, on long straightaways. When I go to San Francisco in my truck, I can print out directions from MapQuest, but you can't do that on a motorcycle."

Currently, the music player is operational, and works reasonably well with the voice recognition software.

"Once we can get cell phones working as well as music, then we think we can get our hands on some GPS software," Steingart said.

Interfacing with cell phones has posed problems to the team. Most cell phones can act as modems, albeit inefficiently, said Steingart. In September of this year, he said, cell phone companies said they will introduce a service that allows cell phones to behave natively as modems.

Steingart and Russell bought a motorcycle helmet for $20 on, a site that links buyers and sellers. They installed a microphone and a headset, and they were on their way to prototyping their design.

A wireless transmitter communicates between the helmet and a "bento box", eventually containing a small computer-so named because an earlier model resembled the Japanese eating tray of the same name.

The rider's cell phone attaches to the computer and lies inside the bento box, which is stored under the seat.

The computer interprets the motorcyclist's voice commands and responds appropriately.

Demonstrating the speech recognition software tool kit the pair is currently using, Steingart said to his computer, "music."

It popped up the WinAmp MP3 player. He then said, "play," and it began playing an MP3.

However, he had to repeat "next song" three times before it would advance to the next song in his playlist. However, he said these glitches would improve with further development, and that the speech recognition software would be refined so that it could be used in the extremely noisy environment of a motorcycle helmet.

"You can't just make it voice activated," said Steingart. "You have to make it so you don't have to yell."

Peter Sealey, a professor and the co-director of the Center for Marketing and Technology in the Haas School of Business, and a motorcyclist himself, said that he doubted the project's commercial viability.

"I have a BMW with an AM/FM radio, and I've used it maybe a couple of times," Sealey said. "If you want mp3s, you can do that pretty cheaply with a Rio or an iPod or something like that. Music is not something you do when you ride a bike. You couldn't hear the William Tell Overture (on a motorcycle). If there's an emergency vehicle coming up from behind, it's hard to hear them."

Although he was pessimistic about the worth of having music and a cell phone available, Sealey thought that GPS might be useful.

"I have GPS in an S-class Mercedes, and although I listen, I much more watch the visual display. It is tough as hell that you can't look at a map on a bike," he said.

"I'd give it a moderate chance of success. It's certainly not a mass item. Anything consumer-oriented, it's tough to get (venture capital)."

At the recent UC Berkeley Innovators' Challenge held

by the Vertex Engineering Entrepreneurship Club, Steingart and Romero made "good connections," said Steingart, even though they did not win.

They were not discouraged by their loss, however, because the winners were a well-funded team that developed what Steingart called "the next generation of RAM."

"The fact that we're paying out of pocket and able to go against funded research is definitely a pat on the back," Steingart said.


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