Mind-reading helmet analyses cyclist's mood and signals drivers

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 August, 2014, 5:02am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 August, 2014, 9:01am

Anyone who rides around Hong Kong on two wheels knows only too well how dangerous it can be, with erratic drivers and double-decker buses hardly providing the ideal environment. But what if everyone else on the road knew what a cyclist was doing, where they were going and even how they were feeling?

That's the concept behind MindRider, a new kind of cycling helmet that's one of the first products to make use of a brain-computer interface. It looks like a regular cycling helmet, but inside MindRider are electrodes embedded in the foam that covers the forehead of the rider. It uses something called electroencephalography to take a real-time measurement of the brain's electrical activity - and voltage fluctuations - on the scalp. In doing so, the sensor can monitor how engaged the cyclist's mind is.

MindRider then sends that information to a smartphone app. Connected to the phone via Bluetooth, the app takes the data and translates it into a gradient showing whether he or she is relaxed, sharply focused, agitated or somewhere in between. The scale - which goes from green to amber to red to a blinking red mode for panic - is then shown to all road users thanks to traffic light-like LED lights on the back of the helmet.

By giving drivers nearby real-time feedback on a cyclist's mental state, it's hoped that motorists will see when a cyclist is feeling under pressure, and give them some room.

Using the GPS sensor in smartphones, the MindRider app also puts all MindRiders on an interactive map. Not only does it track exactly where you went, but it correlates that with how you were feeling: green-lit sweet spots and red-lit hotspots on, say, a route to work are shown. Links to each cyclist's experiences - the sweet spots and hotspots - could help identify the safest and most dangerous parts of a route.

Cyclists about to leave work could therefore plot the most relaxing route to and from work before they set off, or see where other MindRider wearers are suffering from congested routes. It could also help city planners position cycle routes and paths, which is crucial in Hong Kong: a cyclist who doesn't stick to permitted cycle routes risks a fine of HK$2,000, although most of the city's 218km of cycling paths are leisure routes in the New Territories.

Born in the research labs at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US, MindRider is in the final prototype design stage. It's made to be worn by many. Weighing just 390 grams, this BMX-style shell is compatible with any Bluetooth Low-Energy Android devices (any handset less than about two years old) and the iPhone 4S or newer.

Correlating the cyclists' mental state with their positions to create psycho-geographic city maps is certainly new, but there are other compelling concepts out there for far more low-tech helmets than could save just as many lives.

The British-designed Morpher is a collapsible helmet that folds up to fit into a shoulder bag. It's aimed mostly at occasional cyclists who rent bikes; research showed that 92 per cent of people using bikes from London's Barclays Bicycle Hire docking stations never wear a helmet.

Helmets such as the MindRider and Morpher could also be designed for rollerbladers, skaters, horse riders, paragliders, triathletes, climbers and skiers.

Chemically sensitive helmets with adrenaline rush alarms, anyone?