2013-09-13

Co.Labs

Inside The Hammerhead, An Urban Cyclist’s Dream Device

The Hammerhead isn’t just an ingenious bike navigation system--it aims to be an open platform that will crowdsource bicycle routes all over the world, creating a database of rides that anyone can use.



If you’re a cyclist, chances are you’ve seen Hammerhead Navigation’s pitch for a crowdsourced option to make the biking experience safer from the streets to the trails: the Hammerhead, a handlebar-mounted LED heads-up-display blinking directions in the cyclist's peripheral vision while keeping their focus on the road. But the Hammerhead isn’t just a product--it aims to be an open API platform that will streamline biking navigation for any app that wants to build on it. Likewise, Hammerhead Navigation is more than a one-off startup of Silicon Valley regulars--it’s an international three-person team of cyclists who know the pitfalls of urban biking firsthand.

The Hammerhead is appropriately simple, with strips of LEDs left, right, and center in a “T” shape with a single button at the bottom and, since safety is the name of the game, bright LEDs pointing forward and at the arm ends to illuminate either side of the bike along with indicating turns to cars. The strips pulse left and right down the “T” arms for impending turns, as expected, but it’s the center strip that gives the Hammerhead its depth (so to speak).

Adding a “Y” axis opens up surprising functionality for the screenless device: Just how close is my next turn? The strip of green lights blinks out bottom to top to indicate approximate distance. Am I on pace to complete the route I chose? The LEDs may blink in a pattern to indicate how fast you’re comparatively going. The point isn’t to display all the information relevant to the cyclist’s ride--it’s to offer the minimum information essential to keeping them en route while freeing mental bandwidth.

It’s useful to point out that the Hammerhead team used prototypes of their own device as they biked the streets of Jersey City, NJ looking for office space, encountering the pitfalls of unmaintained streets, dead ends, and errors in human navigation that would forge the Hammerhead into a brilliant tool for all levels of cycling. But it sells the team short: These are three people with thousands of hours of biking and outdoorsmanship to whittle away the features and gizmos that clog many crowdsourced product visions. What’s left is an enthusiast-first survival tool, built by experience.

Who Built This Thing?

Piet Morgan, chief and founder of Hammerhead Navigation, grew up in South Africa riding with childhood friend Chris Froome, the 2013 winner of the Tour de France. During one of their later bike rides, they were mugged, though Morgan and Froome followed the muggers, informed the police, and got their stuff back. That kind of thing didn’t happen when Morgan came to the U.S. to attend Yale and biked from Connecticut to San Francisco as part of a multi-week Habitat for Humanity campaign. What did happen, regretfully, was a series of deaths and tragic injuries over successive years that ultimately resulted in removing the biking aspect from the Habitat for Humanity campaign altogether. Urban biking was obviously dangerous, but rural and off-road biking share navigational pitfalls. This was the Hammerhead’s genesis.

Laurence Wattrus had been a biking partner of Morgan’s in high school who graduated with an electromechanical engineering degree from the University of Cape Town, spending much of his time competing on the university cycling team and navigating much of the southern tip of Africa by bike. He came to Brown University in Rhode Island for a master’s degree and met back up with Morgan, who explained the Hammerhead idea over dinner. The team had its engineer.

Morgan quickly realized his self-taught coding wouldn’t be enough and sought out Raveen Beemsingh, who Morgan met at a hackathon at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, where Beemsingh was getting his master’s. Beemsingh, graduate of the National Institute of Technology Surat in India, winner of the HackPrinceton 2013 hackathon, and avid hiker/mountaineer, was instantly excited about the concept and brought his 10+ years of software engineer experience to the team.

Prototyping Early Versions

The team moved into a tiny apartment/workspace in Jersey City and got to work. How would they fit all the navigational data and computation onto a circuitboard inside the Hammerhead’s molded plastic? Their answer: It doesn’t--it steals all the navigation data from your phone. Using Hammerhead Navigation’s smartphone app, the device rips GPS data along the route you’ve planned. Since cell phone signal is notoriously spotty on non-urban bike trails, the Hammerhead app caches route information and syncs back up when you re-enter civilized, cell-broadcasting areas. In the meantime, the internal accelerometer can be used for a compass feature, illuminating a single red LED on the top bar that adjusts to show north.

Broadcasting GPS data to the Hammerhead obviously drains some battery, but the Bluetooth connection uses little phone and device power and the app works with the screen off. The Hammerhead currently uses a LiPo battery that lasts 12 hours (which they hope to upgrade to 20 by release time) and is rechargeable through a microUSB port.

Remember that center button? Hit it if you find an obstacle in the road and the app will mark that space as a warning zone...which it uploads to the cloud for every Hammerhead user who comes down the same road. Likewise, if another Hammerhead user has plotted a warning signal, twin front red LEDs blip to warn you of impending danger.

“The nice thing with cycling is that we don't need to have a tremendous amount of riders on the road,” Morgan said. “We really only need one or two cyclists riding the route to recommend it. We don't need a massive community to add value.”

It's the simplest of community-building features, but it belies the protective nature that binds many biking communities together: that of enthusiasts endangered by carelessness and lack of consideration, especially unmaintained hazards like potholes or oil slicks that barely faze motorists. Looking out for fellow cyclists is the basic functionality that the Hammerhead team hopes will draw users into deeper app features like building off of other users' routes and creating challenge races. Most useful to cycling groups will likely be setting the Hammerhead’s route to one of your app friends, allowing you to hunt them down mid-ride without the agonizing repeated calls of “Okay, where do you think you'll be in 10 minutes?”

The Hammerhead device, which weighs as much as a Garmin fitness watch (180g), sits in front of the handlebars on a central mount...but you don’t need your own bike to use it. The Hammerhead team developed a mount for Bixi-built bikes, which supplies bicycles for bike share systems in New York City, London, Boston, Minneapolis, Melbourne, Toronto, and many others.

The Future Of Biking Lies In App Updates

The Hammerhead device has been tested, refined, and its crowdsourcing campaign has begun--to overwhelmingly positive response, having raised $25,000 of its $145,000 goal in two days. The early-bird price points are out, but you can still reserve a Hammerhead for $75 (it will retail for over $100). And if you’re wary of jumping on the crowdsourcing bandwagon (despite the device’s remarkable funding progress), Dragon Innovation is a funding platform to appreciate: Taking lessons from the delayed delivery and outright implosion that often happens to fully funded Kickstarter campaigns, Dragon Innovation takes a vested interest in ensuring that crowdsourced campaigns deliver what they’ve promised--and, ideally, surpass one-off productions to form innovative companies.

Funding the Hammerhead is by no means the end of the road for Hammerhead Navigation. With the tech in place, the team is set to upgrade the Hammerhead’s functionality with regular firmware updates. The first will establish turn-by-turn navigation using light patterns in all biking conditions and release route discovery options for all kinds of riders and routes.

But the team’s real excitement lies in releasing the Hammerhead software as open API: It’s been designed with navigation apps like Strava, MapMyRide, and GTX in mind to use the Hammerhead hardware to increase functionality of their apps, along with Windows Phone and Firefox OS app integration. Depending on demand, they might even adjust the Hammerhead to work with motorcycles.

Which only spells great things for the Hammerhead’s acceptance, but the possibilities that leave them giddy, the team realized after many group test rides along the Hudson, lie in using the API to program awesome games. Take, for example, Fox & Friends/FoxHunt: The lead bike is the Fox, the others Hunters, and the center strip marks distance between the hunters and the hunted. For personal use, inspired by smartphone apps like Zombies, Run!, Beemsingh suggested Packman--go too slow and you’ll get gobbled up. Of course, there are more sensible ideas, like using the API to develop apps mapping out disaster evacuation routes that are ideal for bikes.

More than a product, Hammerhead Navigation is a team, and funding the project means being a team in one place: After receiving his master’s from Lehigh, Beemsingh’s visa expired, and the team has spent the last two weeks working across the world from each other. Getting the Hammerhead funded has the quiet bonus of getting Beemsingh back to working with his teammates face-to-face on the next great project they’re already dreaming up.

[Images courtesy of Hammerhead]