Camen Design

c share + remix

I Want to Ride My Bicycle

I’ve not spoken much of cycling here on my blog, and the readership would have not had an inkling I had ever ridden a bike until I suddenly announced that I was to cycle 255 miles, for the heck of it. I cycle some 20–25 miles a day and so this was not out of the usual for me other than doubling the distance and phoning my doctor at the end to tell him I’m in Derbyshire.

One would expect that, being a techie, I would naturally gadget-up and use a GPS phone to navigate—I’d have all the benefits of real-time navigation and couldn’t get lost! You’d have to be crazy not to.

No less than my programming, the goal of that journey was to achieve the task with a high level of elegance, simplicity and independence, such that my mind would be taken away from the complexities of the implementation and let me focus on the results. The simplest, most reliable solution was to just print out the route.

Photo of printed map booklet

You are a fool to think that digital instantly means better. Having more features does not equate to better, and there is still no supreme replacement for paper. A paper map does not require a data-plan, a user-account, bandwidth, signal reception, battery life and so on.

Thanks to the simplicity with which I travelled, that journey really helped to clear my mind. I only remember two conscious thoughts the whole way, one of which was how I would design a technical solution that would be able to trump my paper map and provide more consolidation, rather than more complexity. This blog post is about that idea.

Most of the complexity in my journey was caused by the electrical equipment. I took my 3G netbook + charger with me and used a USB lead to charge my phone from the laptop (to save on having a plug for that too). The netbook I used for typing up the blog and uploading photos and the dumbphone as my camera.

The obvious improvement to this setup would be to combine the netbook and the phone / camera into a smartphone. Things have just about managed to improve in the smartphone market over the last year, however the single biggest issue still remains software. Android is an unpolished turd and the iPhone an over-zealous mother-in-law character. There is no elegance to be found in them.

Where I would start with my ideal pipe-dream solution would be a combined dynamo and wheel sensor hub—that is, the hub would both generate power as you cycled, as well as sending speed information up the cable, to: a hardware connector for a smartphone that would feed the phone the speed information whilst powering it.

There are a number of people experimenting with homebrew solutions for powering devices (including lights and cycle computer), but nothing I’ve seen yet of integrating a smartphone into the solution. This is a lucrative market that is about to open to the first companies that can produce polished, integrated solutions. Much like the smartphone is in the process of killing discrete car GPSes, the smartphone will also kill the old-school cycle computer, and early adopters wanted it yesterday.

Whilst getting a dynamo to power a cycle computer is not difficult, what I really want is complete and comprehensive consolidation—an all or nothing approach. Combining the dynamo and wheel sensor to power and send data to a phone would eliminate many currently separate factors in my setup.

  1. Cycle computer. Gets integrated with smartphone. This provides more accurate and timely information than just GPS alone can provide, as well as allowing for truer logging and for positional approximation between GPS pings

  2. Bike light. Use the smartphone flash light, which even on my phone is brighter than my bike light. Because the dynamo will provide power, it won’t risk running the phone down too quickly. The rear light, powered by the dynamo, could be switched on and off from the phone or even use the phone’s camera to automatically sense when it is dark

  3. Chargers. In such a journey where I am cycling most of the day, all week, I should be able to do without a phone charger; especially having to charge the phone through the netbook overnight (because UK plugs are obtuse and the USB phone cable was smaller)

  4. Netbook. In addition to the above, the smartphone—equipped with a good enough web browser—will allow me to take photos, upload them and blog without the need for the heavy netbook and its bulky charger

Integrating the phone fully into the bike makes the setup not a matter of ‘this + this + this = this’, but rather there being only one component—the phone. This is the critical central point in replacing the paper map in my opinion. Once you’ve consolidated all those other individual aspects into the smartphone (cycle computer / light / camera / charger), it’s no longer a battle of 10 different things (including the phone and the map), it’s a battle of only the smartphone vs. the map. i.e. the smartphone without those other things integrated is not better than the paper map, but the smartphone without the battery problem and without having to also carry a separate light and a separate cycle computer, can become elegant and burdenless a solution as the paper map.

I want to walk out of my door with the phone I always have in my pocket and the bike I always ride and be able to ride my bike where I like—even 250 miles—without any prior thought or preparation. No “did I charge my phone last night?” or “are my bike light batteries low?” or “I had better check the route on the Internet before I set off”.

As said earlier, the software is not there. Not least that there is neither the hardware to integrate a cycle computer with a smartphone, but that there is a number of features I would like to implement in software to make the cohesive whole.

And probably a ton of details if I were actually implementing this, especially around route planning and tracking. If someone can make the hardware, I’d have a stab at making the software.

All of this I think is going to unavoidably happen. If anybody thought there was too much tech in cycling, they have seen absolutely nothing yet. Before this year is out, almost everybody will be carrying a smartphone and there will be enthusiasts in every field of life crying out for integration, not least cycling.

What I’ve laid out I think will be common in two years time. In five years time, I can quite easily see mounted cameras live-streaming to the web from the bike.

It’ll all be very complex, but you’ll be able to walk out your door without having to think about it, and in that way it’ll be simple.