One of the hottest trends in motorcycle gear today is the connected helmet.
Once anathema to motorcyclists who treasured their rides as blissful solace from the intrusions of our increasingly high-tech world, the resistance has slowly broken down as riders swapped earplugs for iPod earbuds, and eventually, earbuds for Bluetooth modules and speakers that add music, navigation (via voice prompt), and communication with their significant other (via smartphone) to their lids. Even bicycle helmet makers have gotten into the act.
While motorcycle touring riders on glossy full-boat rigs like the Honda Goldwing and Harley Ultra Classic have been using wired systems for intercom, CB, and music for decades, the rise of the multi-function wirelessly connected helmet is essentially as new as the smartphone.
In 2013, two men started work of what they hoped would be revolutionary helmets with groundbreaking built-in technologies. Dr. Marcus Weller began work on the Skully helmet, a bucket with a next-level full-on computer-in-your-helmet system. It included a 180-degree rear camera piping full-time video to a small heads up display (HUD) up front, along with voice-controlled navigation, music, and communication.
At almost the same time Weller's Skully helmet project was starting to get rolling, a young Russian entrepreneur named Andrew Artishchev was also beginning work on his own vision of what a connected and high-tech helmet could be. Called Livemap, Artishchev's concept had an interesting tech twist.
The Skully P-1 (as it was known in 2013) was intended to give riders 360-degree situational awareness and connectivity while riding. Although we questioned the safety aspect of what appeared to be a helmet full of distractions, Dr. Weller, a psychologist, was convincing in explaining that his approach would actually keep riders' eyes on the road more than ever, since checking mirrors and glancing at instruments or GPS displays could now be relegated to the helmet's nearly line-of-sight display module.
In 2014, the Skully project, now called the AR-1, smashed crowdfunding records and eager tech-hungry riders ponied up to $1,500 apiece for the scifi-looking buckets. They then waited for production to get underway. And waited… And waited…
As we recently witnessed, the Skully story went terribly, horribly wrong as the project cratered into bankruptcy amid charges of corporate shenanigans and lavish spending of donors' money. If you're one of the lucky backers who actually took delivery of one of the small number of Skully helmets that actually got produced, we're sorry to say that software updates are probably not going to be happening anytime soon. eBay might be a smart option.
But the idea of projecting data into the rider's line of sight in such a way as to be more helpful than obtrusive (and possibly dangerous) is a worthy goal, just as it is in cars and fighter planes.
Meanwhile, as Skully's leaders allegedly fiddled, Artishchev has pressed on with his Livemap system. Rather than use a small HUD viewscreen the rider would see in their peripheral vision like the AR-1, Artishchev's helmet projects GPS and other information right into the visor and the rider's sightline, so the rider can see directions laid out before him without taking their eyes off the road in any way. This was essentially the same goal Weller had with Skully, according to our 2013 interview, but Weller's design was different, and perhaps inferior in concept in some ways to Artishchevs. Indeed, Artishchev's Livemap idea garnered an Intel Make It Wearable semifinalist award in 2014.
In the months before Skully became a crowdfunding pariah, Digital Trends met with Artishchev in Los Angeles to take a look at his prototype and talk to him about the technologies involved.
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Essentially, the LiveMap helmet consists of a small Heads Up Display (HUD) projection system similar to what fighter pilots have been using for years, but with some crucial differences. The image a fighter pilot sees is typically thrown from a small projector onto an angled transparent eyepiece in front of the pilot's eyes, so wherever he looks, the HUD view remains more or less in place. The LiveMap helmet emulates this proven approach, with some accommodations for the helmet's use on public roadways. Unlike the Skully and fighter pilot systems, Artishchev's Livemap helmet's display only activates as needed rather than stay on all the time, which likely will help battery life as well.
As an added challenge in designing the Livemap, the traditional fighter pilot HUD setup requires all of the imaging hardware to be located on the top of the helmet. This is fine for throttle jockeys lining up a missile strike, but is a total no-go for motorcyclists who need their helmets to protect their heads first and foremost. Also, the regulatory bodies that certify motorcycle helmets will definitely frown on metal and glass bits that could be driven through the helmet liner and into a rider's head in the event of a crash. So top-mounting the guts of the LiveMap projection system on top of the helmet is out.
Artishchev's solution? Shrink the projection system and incorporate it into the chinbar area, similar (but likely more complicated) to what Skully eventually executed. A key difference is that Artishchev' s projection system needs to be projected up into the visor in such a way as to be readable, while still fitting into the chinbar. To make that approach work, the trickiest part of the tech may very well be the visor itself. This is constructed as a hybrid of regular visor material (plastic) with very thin layers of a super-thin semi-reflective material on highly polished spaces in the visor that the projected data lands on, and at a steep angle no less. The visor must also remain essentially transparent as to not obstruct the rider's vision in any way. And, of course, riders would need to be able to lift and move the visor in the same way they do with a normal helmet.
The first prototype helmet Artishchev put together used an overhead system as proof of concept. However, he showed Digital Trends a new prototype that has essentially achieved a more normal form factor with the projection electronics now located in the chinbar and a hardwired computer (and eventually, an app-running smartphone, of course) streaming control and display data.
To his credit, Artishchev's second prototype -- which we were able to sample in static operation but not out on the road -- ably demonstrated his approach, permitting a clear view ahead while also showing direction data and other information in the rider's field of view. The visor was clear when worn, and the projected data, a colorful and transparent mix of lane markers, arrows, letters, and numbers looked clear and legible. The direction information is neatly presented in a small area in the line of sight, it doesn't take over the whole visor. Again, the projection system is not omnipresent like it was in the Skully lid, it only pops up as needed in Artishschev's design. But with the helmet off, the projection screens in the visor are clearly visible. It's a complicated visor.
The effect when wearing the helmet was both interesting and a bit off-putting at first, but it's easy to see how a rider could quickly get used to it and make good use of the system once a pattern of control over the data is made habit. Future technical improvements include an Android operating system, a global maps database, LTE connectivity and other data points including weather and traffic. A front-facing 4K camera for recording ride footage is also planned but was not present on the helmet we sampled.
The primary key to moving the Livemap helmet towards actual production, of course, is greatly shrinking the electronics and projections system in the chinbar to fit a normal helmet profile. Not an easy (or cheap) task, especially for a guy who is not crowdfunding his development costs. Also, the prototype visor is very delicate, it will take several generations of refinement before it can be both functional and durable, a serious challenge considering the regular beatings a helmet visor takes from bugs, road debris, accidental drops and generally banging into stuff. But Artishchev is without a doubt onto something good with the Livemap.
When Digital Trends first contacted Andrew, part of his presentation of the Livemap helmet included leveling several complaints against the Skully team (and some other companies), whom he accused of appropriating his approach and ideas.
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Just recently, Digital Trends was in contact with Skully when it appeared full-scale production of the AR-1 was finally about to commence. They had offered to send a marketing representative along with a production helmet to our Portland, Oregon, location for an up-close inspection and test ride for evaluation. Once in house, we were hoping to ask the Skully team about Artishchev's allegations and also compare the technologies, but that clearly isn't going to happen now.
Despite Artishchev's accusations, there are clear differences between many facets and functions of the helmets, including the display system and the depth of the tech involved. This is especially notable with the rear camera, which has a self-contained in-helmet computer system and custom OS that were centerpieces of the Skully AR-1.
It's all semantics now, but the beat goes on for Livemap and other helmet makers looking to move skid lids beyond their once-simple jobs as protectors of our delicate noggins.
Artishchev, as we mentioned previously, is not using crowd funding to keep his LiveMap helmet project alive, and if you'd like to contact and support him, go to his website. The Livemap helmet is priced at $1,500 and is available for pre-order with a target delivery date of summer 2017 for U.S. markets and later dates for international locations.
According to his website, Artishchev will show a third-generation prototype helmet at CES this coming January.