They're as smart as they are ... on the roads

Updated: 2017-03-03 09:21

By Deng Yanzi in Hong Kong(HK Edition)

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Bicycle helmets may be part of a familiar scene on the streets, but they're not so often seen as an exhibit in a museum or a winner of an international design award.

Therefore, when the news came in January that Lumos, a smart bicycle helmet, had won the Beazley Design of the Year in the transport category curated by the Design Museum in London, everyone at Lumen Labs - the Hong Kong startup behind the device - was taken aback.

Co-founders Ding Eu-wen and Jeff Chen Haoran say the award was out of the blue, as was the nomination, especially with heavyweight contenders in the same category like the Tesla Model 3.

They're as smart as they are ... on the roads

"The transport category is usually dominated by grand schemes for airplanes, trains and automobiles, but something as simple as a helmet that helps cyclists become more visible and safer is just as important," says Marcus Fairs, one of the judges for the award and editor-in-chief of design magazine Dezeen.

Aimed at enhancing a cyclist's visibility on the roads, particularly in heavy traffic congestion, adverse weather conditions or at night, the Lumos helmet uses lighting signals to make a cyclist's intention clear to other road users.

With an integrated accelerometer, the triangular brake light at the rear of the helmet is automatically switched on when the cyclist slows down or applies the brake. The helmet also allows the user to turn on the signal lights at the front and rear through the wireless control buttons attached to the handlebar when they negotiate a turn.

The flashers on the helmet's front and back can remain switched on throughout the journey to warn other vehicle users on the road of the bicycle's presence.

With a built-in bluetooth, the helmet is also connected to a smartphone app that allows users to customize the helmet's settings or check the battery level.

Ding - Lumen Labs' chief executive officer - says the smartphone app would future-proof the helmet as a user can upgrade the helmet's firmware through its software, such as fixing bugs or creating new features, through updates published on the app.

The smartphone app is also the starting point of the company's grander plan as it aims to roll out more related devices.

"We expect our future products to be able to talk to each other," said chief technology officer Chen, but was tight-lipped about upcoming big ideas.

Smart helmets are part of the burgeoning "Internet of Things" (IoT) market worldwide. Market research firm International Data Corporation has forecast there'll be 28.1 billion IoT devices in operation by 2020, with the exception of smartphones and tablets.

The IoT business would have a total economic potential of between $3.9 trillion and $11.1 trillion annually by 2025, according to research conducted by the McKinsey Global Institute in 2015.

Ding's inspiration for inventing a smart helmet arose partly from his worries as a cyclist himself while he was a business school student at Harvard in 2013. He pitched the idea at a startup event, where he met Chen, an exchange student at Harvard from The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Chen was instantly enthusiastic about the idea. "As a cyclist myself, I understood it was a real problem, and I can contribute to this project as a mechanical engineering student," he recalls.

The duo completed a prototype of the helmet at the hackathon over a weekend and continued their research and development for more than a year to steer it to perfection.

"It's a seemingly straightforward concept, but there's a lot of engineering to make it look simple and that's the design we're trying to go for," Ding says.

"Among the obstacles are the various safety standards that every helmet needs to comply with. We need to find ways of fitting the electronics inside and still complying with standards without sabotaging the helmet's integrity," explains Chen.

Lumen Labs has so far raised more than $800,000 through a crowdfunding campaign and has shipped more than 15,000 smart helmets to its major markets, including the United States, the United Kingdom and European countries.

The company is currently self-funded with the help of friends and the families of the co-founders. It has already been admitted to the incubation program of Hong Kong Science and Technology Park which provides the company's office space.

The two entrepreneurs say they hope to seek other investments to help them realize their goals.

"Our traction in the market is very strong. It's going well," says Ding.

They're as smart as they are ... on the roads

(HK Edition 03/03/2017 page8)