In popular imagination, bikers are the last outlaws. Shows like Sons of Anarchy show them as rebel gangs, living outside of society, and playing by their own cruel rules. And, indeed, there are still gangs breaking the law, and running their lives as if they stepped from the savage pages of Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels.
But they certainly aren’t the only ones on motorcycles. Cycles have become a perfectly acceptable form of transportation, as well as an easy outlet for pseudo-rebellion. It’s safe to say that for the majority of riders, “stomp” evokes an improvisational form of outsider music, and not something you’re going to have to do to a snitch. And for those riders, safety goes hand-in-hand with the open road.
To help riders become more safe, and, just as importantly, to keep them connected in a world that demands nothing but, a San Francisco helmet and tech company named Skully has introduced an augmented reality helmet designed to show riders the information about the road ahead of them, behind them, their bike, and many other things. Augmented reality is the future, and already one of the stars, of the mobile tech revolution. How it works for riders is a great demonstration of how it could work for the rest of us.
The above video shows Skully’s amazing capabilities, as well as its stylish design (I think, anyway; it certainly looks stylish to me, but I’ve been wearing the same hoodie since the Clinton administration, so take that with a grain of salt). But it isn’t what’s on the outside what matters – although, being just as safe as a regular helmet, the outside still matters quite a bit. Here are some of its key features.
- Rearview camera: This is one of the key features of the helmet. The rearview camera allows the rider to see what is coming up behind them, a constant source of worry for the motorcycle rider, especially when they want to quickly shift lanes.
- GPS: A driver who is lost and can’t concentrate is a dangerous one, and someone on a bike who isn’t sure where to turn or when their exit is coming up can lose their focus on the road, and is prone to moving in sudden starts. This is hazardous to them and to others on the road.
- Music: Because you could play “Born to Be Wild” on an endless loop, and really maybe you should, but for long trips you might want something more.
According to their FAQ, Skully plans to beta test more features, like Bluetooth to connect you to your phone.
Is it safe? This doesn’t sound safe.
Right now, it sounds like the helmet is introducing more distractions to the rider, particularly with the rearview camera. But riders will be checking their mirrors anyway, and when they do, they lose a fraction of a second as the brain tries to refocus. A fraction of a second could be life or death at 70 mph.
Skully’s helmets, on the other hand, project the rearview camera, as well as the other information, on a screen to the bottom right of your line of vision, which looks like it is ten feet ahead of you. This tricks the brain into not having to refocus, allowing the rider to take in all the information at once. Stuff like trying to figure out where to go and checking the road, and even playing music and talking on a headset, are part of our normal driving and riding experiences, even if you think the latter two maybe shouldn’t be. This helmet takes what is normal, and fairly dangerous, and makes it safer. It condenses information into a way that is easy to take in, understand, and react to, seamlessly.
The future of augmented reality for riders and the rest of us
It’s easy to imagine the other options that can come when the helmets come out and people can start tinkering with them, in May of 2015. Maybe weather reports that help a rider not get caught in hazardous conditions just ahead. Maybe it can tell you if you are heading toward construction, or what hotels are coming up, or if there is about to be an emergency George Thorogood concert.
But not all of us ride motorcycles. I certainly don’t, and I doubt I ever will; I just don’t feel I have the pants needed to pull it off. But such is life. That doesn’t mean those of us outside the club won’t have augmented reality be an important part of our lives. Right now, Google Glasses, which are essentially a tool for augmented reality, have become something of an unfortunate punchline, as they are seen as more obnoxious than helpful.
But we’ve talked about how such technology can be helpful to professionals, and it will eventually become the norm. Think of people who had cell phones in the mid-90s: they were objects of ridicule, laughed at as self-important yuppies who wanted to show the world that they were always in demand. Within a decade, it was bizarre not to have a cell phone, and now it is seen in many quarters as a statement in and of itself to not be connected. Things change.
One way or the other, people will adopt augmented reality. Having a map in your field of vision while you walk down the street, or being able to know what Thai restaurants are coming up on the next block, or being able to see architectural history of the building at which you’re gazing in awe without having to avert your eyes from its grandeur, or even watching lines trace constellations in the stars: that will all become a part of our lives.
The biker culture sprang out of the ashes of WWII, where disaffected veterans who couldn’t readjust to normal society took to the open roads. It gave us many gifts: heavy metal, some great Brando movies, arguably the career of Dennis Hopper, and, maybe most importantly, a sense that while the Western frontier may be closed, and with its closing that bursting power of expansion and exploration, there were still ways to keep expanding the nation, to keep searching for something that is better and more free. In the same vein, we may think we know the world now. But augmented reality can give us a new world, one we couldn’t before imagine was there to explore.