Your bike and your smartphone become one with this Kickstarter connected bike system

The Cobi connected bicycle system aims to bring connected car smarts and safety into the bike lane.

Antuan Goodwin/CNET
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Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Short for "Connected Bike," the Cobi system is a modular cockpit that adds some of the intelligence of a connected car to almost any bicycle on the road. The system is currently being crowdfunded on Kickstarter and, with just a few days left, the developers stopped by CNET's offices with a very early prototype.

Out of the box, there are two parts to the Cobi system: there's the hardware, which consists of the Cobi Hub and its thumbstick controller, and on the software side, Cobi provides an app that runs on the rider's smartphone.

The Hub, which looks like an enlarged headlight, attaches to the bike's handlebars, wrapping around and over the the stem. In addition to providing forward illumination from its LED ring light, the Hub provides antitheft capabilities in the form of an accelerometer-triggered light and sound alarm. Connected to the Hub is a thumb controller that also attaches to the handlebar and gives the rider control over the rest of the system's functions.

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The Cobi Hub integrates an LED light ring. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

However, the Hub's most important function is providing a mounting location for the rider's smartphone, which runs the Cobi app and adds the connection to this Connected Bike system. An iPhone, Samsung Galaxy S4/S5, or Google Nexus 5 is first snapped into a special Cobi case which is then in turn snapped onto the Hub. By using this connection, the Hub is able to charge the phone using its larger built-in battery. (Cobi's Kickstarter page lists a flexible mounting case for other smartphones as a stretch goal.)

From its cradled, front and center position, the smartphone app presents the rider with a simplified interface that can be totally controlled via the Hub's thumbstick controller. Available functions include navigation powered by Telenav's Scout, which allows riders to search for and set their destinations before hitting the road. The rider also has access to fitness functions, a digital speedometer, audio and music controls and more. Cobi's designers tell me that they're only building in functionalities that are useful to the rider and safe to use when the bike is in motion and are building on their experience designing connected car systems for premium European automakers such as Audi.

The Cobi system is a modular system, so the rider can continue to build around the Hub with add-on parts. The designers demonstrated an Auto Brake Light, which attached to the rear of the bike, automatically illuminating according to ambient light and shining brightly when the system's accelerometer detected that the bike was slowing down. The Auto Brake Light also integrated a thumbstick controllable turn signal.

By the time the Cobi system launches in late 2015, the designers will also offer even more integration, for example, with hub dynamos to provide power to the system for recharging. When connected to an e-bike, the system could pull its power from the large rechargeable battery that powers the bike or even integrate with the electric assist systems these bike offer. A Developer tier of the Cobi Kickstarter includes access to an SDK that will help e-bike designers and app developers adapt their creations to work with the Cobi system.

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Possible additions to the modular Cobi Basic include rear lights, turn signals, hub dynamo power and more. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

I came away from my Cobi demo pretty excited about the system for a handful of reasons. I like that it adds useful lighting to the bike and puts what appears to be low distraction software in front of the rider. The thumbstick lets the rider interact with the navigation software without taking a hand off of the bars. Most importantly, I like that the Cobi can be added to almost any bike; bicycles are a very personal mode of transportation and I could upgrade the trusty steed that I built with my own hands, already know, and love rather than buying a whole new expensive smart bike.

And I'm not the only one who is excited. Everyone who passed the bike in the CNET lobby stopped to ask about it. At the time of publication, the COBI system has raised over $273,000 of its $100,000 goal with yet 10 days remaining to reach its stretch goals. While COBI's Kickstarter is happening, the most basic "Standard" kit is available in certain countries (including the UK and Australia) and starts at $179 (directly converts to about £115, AU$220) with styling, customization, and add-on kits pushing the range up to $499 (£320, AU$615) for the most expensive "Limited Edition Custom" kit.

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