A Helmet Full of Dreams

After a motorcycle crash in Spain, Marcus Weller had a vision of a safer ride, and the Skully AR-1 was born.

Skully Founder and CEO Marcus Weller has vivid dreams of flying like Superman, of wielding otherworldly strength like Thor, of slinging webs and climbing buildings like Spider-Man. In the real world, though, he’s a lot like Iron Man, or more appropriately Tony Stark, the man behind the iron facade.

Like Stark, Weller uses technology and intelligence as stand-ins for superpowers. “I love the idea of enhancing the human form and senses and capabilities with technology,” says the 31-year-old creator of the AR-1, a motorcycle helmet that augments human consciousness and enhances a user’s situational awareness. “Every facet or aspect of Stark is enhanced through technology,” continues Weller. “That’s pretty cool and exactly what we are trying to do at Skully — use our technological know-how to keep motorcyclists safer.”

Over the last quarter century, motorcycle safety has improved by leaps and bounds. Yet it is still a much more risky form of transportation than driving a car, truck, or SUV. Of the nearly 8.5 million registered riders on the road in 2012, 4,986 died and approximately 93,000 were injured in motorcycle crashes in the United States alone. While that figure seems small compared to the number of individuals who died and were injured in automobile accidents in 2012, motorcyclists are, in fact, nearly six times more likely to be killed in a crash than a motorist.

Enter the Skully AR-1. It’s a premium, highly capable motorcycle helmet first and foremost. “A helmet is the second most important piece of gear a rider wears,” says Robert Gladden, vice president of the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF). “Only because it protects the number one, which is between the rider’s ears.” According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, helmets are estimated to have saved 1,630 lives in 2013 — and that’s only in reported crashes.

The AR-1 just feels right on your head. “We’ve spent a lot of time making sure that what touches your face is soft, the foams are nice and plush and give you a good fit, and making sure you have the right size pads and everything,” says Josh Bloom, Skully’s vice president of product. “We’ve also designed the helmet to create a little low-pressure zone behind it. This helps channel air through the vent system and balance the helmet on your head….Even if you have the technology off, you’re still riding with a nice, safe helmet that’s quiet, comfortable, and has good aerodynamics.”

But make no mistake, it is the AR-1’s technical capabilities — those that enhance a rider’s reality by providing him with a 360-degree field of vision, giving him a glimpse into the future by connecting to the Internet — that provide the wearer with the power to better handle an uncertain, often perilous, road ahead.

The AR-1 is equipped with a unique augmented reality platform; a powerful yet tiny processor; a compact easy-to-read heads-up display; and a built-in rearview camera. The camera streams wide-angle (180-degree) video of what’s happening behind the rider, out of their normal field of vision to the HUD, which projects it in a small thumbnail-sized box on the inside of the helmet’s visor, just above the rider’s right cheekbone. To the rider, however, it seems to appear about 10 feet in front of the motorcycle. And thanks to an automatic infinitely variable focal distance, the rearview feed and any “added” information displayed with it are always in focus, no matter where the rider is looking.

What’s “added” information, you ask? It’s the data and services provided when the helmet is connected to the Internet, when paired to the rider’s cell phone via Bluetooth. Once connected, the wearer can access spoken turn-by-turn directions to his destination, have emails and text messages read back to him, make telephone calls, and play his favorite music, all through the companion app.

Rider instructions or prompts will appear in a thin top banner above the feed, never interfering or blocking the rear view, and only the basic information the rider needs to get from point A to point B, for example, will be displayed: what street to take, which direction to turn, and when. No maps.

All of this might sound like information overload and a potential source of rider distraction, and it can be — at first. But the key to staying safe on two wheels lies in maintaining a 360-degree bubble of awareness — knowing what’s happening in front of you, behind you, and to the sides at all times. That might sound easy, but it is actually a Herculean task for many motorcyclists. First, humans have only a 180-degree field of vision, so half of that bubble of awareness is left unmonitored at all times. Riders have to look into multiple mirrors and do all sorts of safety checks to complete the situational picture. The problem is that “any movement a rider makes can affect the motorcycle’s trajectory,” says the MSF’s Gladden. If you turn your head and shift your body weight to the right to see over your shoulder, for instance, you will most likely steer the bike to the right a little, possibly an inch or two, possibly into oncoming traffic, a guardrail, or a car or another bike in the next lane over. Second, and maybe even more important, the rider must take his or her eyes off the road ahead to do so. Never a good idea, as Weller can attest. Unlike a motorist, the motorcyclist isn’t cocooned in steel and sheet metal for protection. Bikers don’t have seat belts or air bags. Wits, agility, and proper safety gear are the only things keeping many of them from becoming a fatality statistic.

The AR-1 is designed to enhance those abilities by eliminating the 180-degree blind spot that plagues riders and by aiding with distracting tasks like figuring out directions. It limits the physical and cognitive load of riding a motorcycle by providing the rider with a much-needed 360-degree situational awareness without unwittingly putting them in danger. Imagine what that kind of technology can do for safety in other industrial sectors? Weller’s backstory is, itself, something out of a superhero comic. In 2012, Weller was working for the German government on a Bundeskanzler-Stipendium chancellor fellowship — through the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation while finishing his PhD in industrial psychology at Wayne State University, in Detroit. “My job was to enhance international science relations between the United States and Germany, and Russia and China peripherally,” he says. “It was a very interesting time.”

As part of the fellowship, the young techie was required to spend time in Barcelona. While on a business trip to the cosmopolitan capital of Spain’s Catalonia region, he rear-ended a tiny Smart car while riding his rented Honda 250 P.O.S. (colloquially known to stand for “piece of…”). The doctoral student was distracted while searching for a street address. Unfortunately, Barcelona’s street signs are notoriously obscured from sight and hard to read, which makes navigating the city nearly impossible without a GPS system. Weller says his eyes were off the road for only a matter of seconds. Even so, it was long enough to total the Honda and severely injure his hand. “I wasn’t wearing gloves and wound up ripping a good patch [of skin] off my palm,” he explains. But the outcome could have been worse.

Many months later, Weller was on the mend and back stateside looking for his next opportunity. One Wednesday night in May of 2012, he says he had a dream. He was back in Spain, right before the crash. Everything was the same, except this time around Weller was wearing what he describes as a super helmet, one that could display detailed maps, provide audible turn-by-turn directions, as well as alert him to possible hazards in his vicinity. Instead of looking around aimlessly for a street sign, Weller was able to focus on the road ahead: “I saw the car slam on the brakes, swerved around it because I was looking in my direction of travel, and found my destination.”

Thrilled by the thought of such a helmet, Weller abruptly sat up in bed, headed to his computer, and started searching for it. “I had to have it,” he says. But there was nothing like it on the market. So the tech-minded wonder kid decided to build his dream helmet. The next morning Weller turned his kitchen into a makeshift design studio, drew up designs for the helmet, filed a provisional patent, ordered a bunch of components online, and went to work building a prototype. “My roommate was not thrilled,” Weller admits.

He started by taking apart rearview cameras and helmets, and figuring out how to put all “this stuff” together, says Bloom, Skully’s vice president of product, and by “teaching himself about subjects like electrical engineering and optics.” Weller’s goal was to get a better understanding of how the technology worked, and how he could make it all fit together seamlessly and engineer the best solution possible, without forgetting the human factor. Ultimately, he was trying to save lives.

The most difficult challenge when trying to build such a connected device is figuring out the optics. “I couldn’t afford to hire an optics [specialist], so I just had to learn about them, trying all different kinds of approaches,” Weller says. “Eventually we had a little bit of money in the bank, so I hired a PhD that could be on call to bounce ideas off. But I still had to develop them in my kitchen.”

Almost as challenging a task was not getting lost in the technology and maintaining focus on the human factor of creating a connected helmet. “You don’t want to distract the rider [with too much information],” explains Weller. “But you want to give them enough to take intelligent action based on what’s going on around them.” Consequently, Weller and company were very conscious about designing the helmet’s interface so that it operated in a familiar manner. For example, riders tend to look down and to their left or right mirrors to see what’s going on behind them. With the AR-1, that same movement of the eye can instead give the rider a complete rearview panorama, not a fraction of it.

“It’s an easy and rapid way to quickly see what’s going on in your blind spots,” explains Weller, “versus having to look in multiple mirrors and do all these different shoulder checks and lifesaver looks to kind of stitch together in your head what is in fact around you.”

Within six months, Weller had a functioning prototype of the helmet. It was rough, a whole lot of duct tape and solder, but it was legitimate proof of concept, something the fledgling entrepreneur desperately needed to raise seed money to launch the company and further develop the product. Hence, Skully was born in 2013.

Fundraising for a startup is never a simple task, but Weller and company made it look relatively easy. Partially because capital wasn’t the only thing they were looking for during the fundraising process. After attaining some angel investment, they ran a crowdfunding program via Indiegogo to gain a better understanding of the market and their place in it. “It’s a preorder-type thing,” explains Bloom. “It got us the capital to continue developing and growing the team,” as well as determine “if there was a demand for such a product.” There was much more interest than anyone thought.

According to TechCrunch, Skully was the fastest fully funded campaign on Indiegogo ever, raising $1 million in just 45 hours, averaging $1,425 a contribution. The company was looking to raise only $250,000. “We got something like 2,500 preorders right away,” Bloom says. “Now we have more than 4,000.”

The VP of product surmises that the company’s meteoric rise in popularity lies in its open approach to innovation. The company took the time to create awareness about the AR-1 and shared what it learned while developing it with the masses to build a community of like-minded motorcycle enthusiasts. “We wanted people to be a part of the process, feel like they are part of that experience,” Bloom says. The tactic worked; mainly the technology was super solid. Consequently, Skully won the coveted 2014 SXSW Accelerator Award in the Wearable Technologies category, as well as raised another $11 million in Series A venture capital funding later that year, which was necessary to bring the company’s first product to market.

It should just be simple. I mean, transportation is the most frequent, ubiquitous, and dangerous thing we do, Weller says.

Today, the Skully AR-1 augmented reality motorcycle helmet is almost ready to ship. The company’s objective with this product is to reduce the burden of cognitive thinking associated with your ride. “You can just hop on your bike and just kind of offload the processing you would normally do to figure out where you’re going because Skully is just going to tell you where to go, and you don’t even have to think about it,” says Weller.

Flex has been an integral partner in Skully’s product realization. “They’ve provided a lot of consultation on how to take something that was a strong concept and bring it to scale,” says Weller. Flex has helped make sure that the AR-1 would be reliable, designed and engineered for optimal performance manufacturing, and that every detail was especially right. “Like I said, this is a safety product, not a toy,” says Weller.

While the helmet and its app might sound like J.A.R.V.I.S., the AI used by Stark to help control the Iron Man suit and most everything else in his life, it is not. Data-driven AR-based apps enhance what you see by adding information on top of it. Data-driven AI-based apps, in contrast, can help you determine what to do and when, how, and why to do it. The helmet is the epitome of a smart, connected device, one that provides more actionable data (or helps you avoid having to take unnecessary action).

For those still troubled by the thought of AR-1-induced rider distraction, you have a right to be concerned. “I know when I am riding, the fewer things I have to keep track of, the more I can pay attention to the road around me,” says the MSF’s Gladden. “However, I can see the benefits of such technology, too. [Riders] will have to be smart about how they use it.”

The safety expert recommends practice, practice, practice. “Riders that choose to adopt this technology would be advised to ease into it, to practice using the features in parking lots or closed-course environments where they can receive and process the AR data in a safe environment first,” he says. Make sure you can integrate it into your daily routine before trying it out at highway speed.

Weller agrees but also contends the helmet works right out of the box. “It should just be simple, especially in the transportation context,” he says. “I mean, transportation is the most frequent, ubiquitous, and dangerous thing that we do.”

While the company’s focus is homing in on getting the AR-1 to market, thought has been given to how Skully will evolve down the road. “We see a lot of possibilities,” admits Bloom. “We love the transportation space, so we could see the technology jumping to cars, or other helmets and helmet verticals. We have a lot of bicyclists in the office who are clamoring to build a bicycle helmet.”

In addition, a fundamental part of the helmet’s feature set is to be able to leverage other devices in the surrounding area to increase its intelligence. “That can include communicating with the motorcycle itself,” says Weller. “That can include the smartphone and the app ecosystem. That can include the software back end via the Internet. That may include artificial intelligence. There are so many ways when you introduce a physical sort of inanimate object to the Internet.”

“We tend to gravitate to the places that have the greatest impact,” he says. “And that’s kind of been our guiding light on the feature set of the AR-1 and also just the product road map itself. Becoming a node in the intelligent transportation system, integrating vehicle-to-vehicle communications, and interacting with driverless cars and other intelligent vehicles are going to be key aspects of Skully’s future.”

Learn how the Skully AR-1 works here.


Originally published at www.theintelligenceofthings.com.

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INTELLIGENCE explores the concept of co-innovation and the “Intelligence of Things,” that Flex sees as the building blocks of the post-Information Age era. More at flex.com