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Smart helmet points out the potholes

Ted Selker of MIT's Media Lab invents gadgets to make his life and the environment a bit smarter. Photos: Bike helmet built for road hazards

What if a bike helmet could warn you about a pothole in the road? What if the airport arrivals-and-departures screens could sell you a Sprite?

Then you'd be living in Ted Selker's world, where design meets intelligent computing. A research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab, Selker invented these gadgets, among others, out of a desire to make his life and the environment a little bit smarter.

Take the Smart Helmet, a functional headpiece he invented five years ago after reaching a boiling point about inadequate roads and bad drivers in the Boston area. (He commutes by bike from Arlington, Mass., to MIT's campus in Cambridge about three times a week.) Now, the shiny BMX-adapted bike helmet is nearly perfect, he says.

Smart Helmet

What can it do? It can play music or audio books, with hook-ups for an iPod or tape cassette. It can record speech through built-in microphones, and GPS (Global Positioning System) warns the wearer of hazards on a given route. It also can detect important sounds like a fire siren to mute music when necessary. It has a Motorola cell phone with Bluetooth installed so a bicyclist can talk on the phone, hands-free.

Also, wearers can tip their heads to the left to turn the left-side blinker on at the back of the helmet. Set the helmet down on a kitchen counter and it will turn itself off, thanks to installed motion detectors. If the wearer yells at an unruly motorist, the helmet will activate a horn at a higher decibel than the human noise. Selker said this feature helps keep him out of trouble with motorists.

"As a bicyclist, people don't like it when I yell," said Selker, a professor of context-aware computing and industrial design intelligence at MIT's Media Lab.

"One of the problems wearable computers have had in the past is--why would you wear something that would complicate the freewheeling feeling of walking around unencumbered?" Selker said. "I want to make something that people already wear or use, but better."

The helmet exemplifies Selker's work on gizmos that mediate communication between people and the environment and create a kind of virtual city that enhances the ones we live in. He's working on hundreds of other projects that meld intelligent design with everyday objects or industrial ones.

The vending machine is one. He has helped develop a working model of a vending machine that doesn't look like a vending machine. Rather than the typical Pepsi logo that wraps most soda machines, the machine has a video screen display with arrival and departure times for flights. That way, an airport could save money on signage, but also sell sodas in a way that's less intrusive to the environment.

In another version, the screen includes an interactive word game much like Scrabble that encourages passersby to make a word from a set of letters. As people contribute to the game over time, it reflects the community's input.

MIT plans to show the working model of the vending machine at an upcoming Digital Life conference in New York.

Looks normal

From the outside, the Smart Helmet looks normal. It's a black, shiny BMX helmet designed to block wind noise. It has a chin bar with a built-in microphone near the mouth that muffles external noise, too. Business calls are typically off-limits for Selker, however, because he breathes too heavily while riding.

Inside, the helmet has a PIC processor that controls everything from turning blinkers on to recording voice commands. A built-in accelerometer--a device that measures acceleration or the helmet's own motion--detects when the wearer gets bumped or nods his head, which then causes the chip to activate various commands.

Selker has built about four versions of the Smart Helmet since 2001, and each time he adds a new idea or function. For example, he wanted the first model to simply let him talk on a cell phone and listen to music with ease. For that, he began working with different headpieces and microphones and eventually built software that applied linguistic analysis to interpret various ambient sounds and discern which were important. That way, the helmet would stop playing music, for example, when an ambulance siren was sounding off.

The downside of the first version, however, was that the software required the computing power of a huge Sony PC, making the helmet too cumbersome.

So in the follow-up version, he downsized the code to discern only the volume and pitch of noises, giving the helmet roughly the same functionality as its predecessor. "If it's loud enough, the computer listens to it," he said. Now, the system has a few hundred lines of C programming without an entire PC in the helmet.

The newest Smart Helmet, finished this summer, lets the bicyclist shake his head to turn on a microphone, which then records a voice command. For example, if Selker runs into a blind spot at an intersection or a pothole in the road, he can activate the microphone by shaking his head and then say "bad intersection" or "dangerous hole." With GPS technology installed, the helmet will then detect when Selker is traveling near those same spots another day and turn on the recorded audio.

"I live in Boston, where there are typically no street signs," he said. "With the helmet, I can shake my head, and say, 'Massachusetts Avenue,' and create a virtual city."

Selker said the helmet would sell for about $200 in a store, without the costs of a connected iPod or cell phone. Still, he has yet to commercialize the helmet. "I'm the only one who uses it. Making a prototype is hard," he said.

He envisions the next version will have the ability to make connections with other bicyclists. With a Bluetooth device, which has a unique identifier, the helmet could detect others on the road with the same technology who, for example, share the same route.

"Your devices could broker a relationship and make you both aware of one another, so one of you could say, 'Hey,' and start a conversation," Selker said.