Quick. Can you recall the correct hand signals used by cyclists to denote a left or right
Even if you can, chances are those motions aren’t that clear if you’re driving a car in traffic. With that in mind and the fact that about 40 percent of vehicle-bicycle accidents occur at intersections, a group of University of Illinois engineering students are developing an innovative way for motorists to clearly detect which direction a cyclist is turning.
The group, under the auspices of a startup called Actif, whose mission is promote an active lifestyle, is developing a wearable system for those who share the road with vehicles, whether they be cyclists, runners or walkers that is both functional and fashionable.
One of the company’s founders, Alex Lee, notes that while much of bicycle safety, like a helmet for example, is focused on post-accident survival, this technology could help prevent the accident altogether.
“In a collision between flesh and metal, metal will always win,” he said.
One of the main features is a set of LED lights that act as turn signals. The system also includes a self-actuated brake light and a haptic motor feedback system that recreates the sense of touch. The feature set will vary depending on the type of activity the user is looking for.
The turn signals are wirelessly controlled by a toggle switch that is mounted onto the handlebars. Lee believes the advantage of having the lights on the back of a rider as opposed to below the seat is that they are closer to eye level for a motorist.
The four students – Lee, Anish Bhattacharya, Edgar Cortez and Naoki Tsuda – are now sophomores at Illinois, but the project actually started before their freshmen years as part of the IEFX Summer Scholars Program.
Field test of the proof-of-concept (turn signals integrated in a cycling jacket).
Photo Courtesy College of Engineering
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For Lee, an avid cyclist, the project combines the hobby with his growing interest in inertial measurement unit or IMUs (those include accelerometers, gyroscopes and magnometers) and the “Internet of Things.”
After validating the initial concept, Lee and others built a proof-of-concept and did some field tests by riding around campus and getting feedback.
“When a cyclist comes to an intersection at the same time as a car, the hand signal can be a little convoluted,” Lee said. “In our field test, sometimes we used the LED turn signals, sometimes we used traditional hand signals, and sometimes we didn’t signal at all. During our initial testing, motorists and pedestrians appreciated that our system not only made the user more visible, but also gave them a way to communicate in an effective and intuitive manner.”
Over the course of the last school year, the group moved the idea from the proof-of-concept phase into product development. Actif used the Cozad New Venture Competition, sponsored by the University of Illinois Technology Entrepreneur Center, to help move the process along. As part of Cozad, Actif advanced to the final round and earned the Samsung Research Innovation Challenge, which included a $5,000 award.
“Cozad presented us with the perfect opportunity to continue it further,” Lee explained. “This was the perfect opportunity to learn about business and expand our knowledge beyond engineering. Up until now this was more of a side project; now we’re ready to take it to the next level and form a company. We received $5,000 of in-kind prizes, which helped us form an entity and obtain office space.”
Actif has also partnered with the Bike Project, which offers a space and the tools for members to build and repair bikes from recycled parts and generally advocate for cycling in the area. The group had preliminary trials with Bike Project members last year, which provided a lot of early feedback.
While the initial idea centered on turn signals, the group is also working on another set of LEDs to serve as brake lights.
“To accomplish that, we will use an accelerometer that can tell how fast you are going in x, y or z direction,” Lee explained “We can determine a threshold for deceleration that would tell the system you are slowing down and intensify your brake light accordingly.”
Through haptic motor feedback, they are also working on a system to relay turn-by-turn-directions from a phone directly to the user via vibrations on the vest or backpack. For instance, when the rider is to turn right, he will feel a vibration on his right side indicating the place to turn. This concept eliminates the need to look at the GPS or listen for directions in a noisy environment, thus keeping the rider’s attention focused on the road.
Whether the final product is either a backpack or a jacket, the team has researched the market and believes that in addition to functionality, the product must be attractive. As a result, Actif is working with a fashion consultant in the design. The feedback indicates the product needs to have a good design and premium build materials, and the technology needs to be invisible to the user (meaning the user shouldn’t even be aware that there are lots of components embedded into the product).
From left, Anish Bhattacharya, Naoki Tsuda, Alex Lee and Edgar Cortez.
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
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“We are conscious of the fact that we’re not just making wearable technology, we’re essentially creating a fashion accessory,” Lee said. “The way you integrate technology into fashion is to look at it as a fashion accessory that just happens to have this technology.”
As for a timeline, they are hoping to refine the prototype for a harness/jacket/backpack by the end of the semester, then get feedback from members of the Bike Project next spring.
“We are focused on putting all the pieces together and housing them into a system,” Lee said. “Based on feedback from the Bike Project, we will make iterations for the prototype and cycle them through until we feel like we have the core feature set. Then focusing on form factors and materials we are going to use, we can slowly add different features.”
Those additional features will be added in the future with the consumer getting the option of the features that are most important to them based on their intended use.
“We are aware that our system’s capabilities expand beyond promoting the active lifestyle,” Lee said. “This drives us to keep innovating and makes us excited for the future.”