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Is the Bike of the Future a ‘Mind Reader’?

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

What if your bike could help you ride more safely by literally reading your mind? That’s what Josh Andres of Monash University’s Exertion Games Lab and IBM, and a team of Australian researchers are currently working on. They have developed “Ena”, which they describe as “an EEG-eBike system that draws from the user’s neural activity to determine when the user is in a state of peripheral awareness to regulate engine support.”

Basically, Ena works like this: imagine you’re having one of those great rides when you’re going at a good clip, without a care in the world, and looking at the world passing around you when, suddenly, a young child runs out into the street in front of you. Your instinctive reaction will be to be hyper-focused on avoiding running into that child. Ena can help you do that by reading your brain activity at that moment and, via a bike-mounted computer, slow you down more quickly than you could.

The Ena system works via a helmet that contains an electroencephalogram (EEG), which tracks and records, in real-time, brain wave patterns, specifically the part of the brain that deals with vision. When a person’s mind perceives a threat or danger, their vision narrows to focus on that threat – such as a cyclist who has seen a child run into their path. The brain wave signals are interpreted by the computer, which instantly initiates engine support for the cyclist. The researchers call this “a safe and enjoyable human-computer integration experience.”

In the researchers’ lab, Ena took the form of a regular Reid flat-bar commuter bike that was converted into an e-bike with a motor installed in the front hub. An 18V battery and a processor unit were also mounted onto the bike, and the processor unit was connected to an electrode cap worn by the rider. The cap used EEG to pick up electrical signals in the occipital region of the rider’s brain, which is the part of the brain responsible for vision processing.

Earlier studies have shown that it is possible to read occipital lobe activity to determine whether an individual’s vision is “peripherally open” – that is, if he or she is taking in their wide surroundings – or if it is tightly focused. Other research has found that what is known as the “peripheral awareness state” is associated with better athletic performance, better coordination and a higher awareness of the environment.

Mind-reading bicycle
© Simon Schluter

The researchers programmed the system to automatically provide support from the bike’s motor when the rider is in a peripheral awareness state and to cut that support when they leave that state. That is, when the road ahead is free of obstacles and the rider is relaxed, the bike speeds up but when a potential hazard catches the rider’s attention, that shift in the rider’s brain is detected by the EEG sensors and the motor shuts off.

Because the system is tracking neural activity in real-time, it knows instantaneously whether you’re peripherally aware or not, so it can react and shut off the motor before you’ve even had a chance to process the threat and reach for the brakes. In a word, Wow!

Mind-Reading Bicycle
Ena eBike architecture. Credit: Josh Andres et al.

Twenty riders took part in an experiment using the system by riding their “mind-reading bicycle” on a straight suburban street. In interviews following their rides, most of the cyclists said that the system reacted faster than they could. As one put it, “there’s a minor moment of panic where you realize, ‘Hey, I need to quickly find a way to avoid this incoming thing.’ That’s when the bike slows down and gives you time to think.” And to react.

But is this really the bike of the future? It could be. We already have helmets, e-bikes and bike-mounted computers. All that’s needed is to add EEG sensors to the helmet and connectivity to link the helmet to the computer and the computer to the motor. Once that’s accomplished, the only important question left to answer would be: how much does it cost?