Thursday, 28 July 2011

Mind-controlled gear shifting!

You may have checked the date when you read that headline - we certainly did, wondering if we'd been abducted by aliens during the night, placed into stasis while they stuffed things up...well, you know what aliens do, then returned on April the 1st.

However, that's precisely what every British fascist's favourite newspaper the Daily Mail is reporting - a bike with gears that are shifted using mental control. The bike has apparently been developed by Toyota, Saatchi&Saatchi and Parlee Cycles and is given the catchy name Prius Project Parlee PXP - and what's more, we looked it up on Toyota's website to check it really exists and isn't just a story the newspaper invented, like they do whenever they want to attack immigrants/single mothers/other groups traditionally targeted by far-right rags. The first mention of it on the manufacturer's site was in fact dated April 2011, which at first confirmed our suspicions and had us all ready to fire off an e-mail to the Mail saying something along the lines of "Ha ha! pWnt, Nazis!" - but then we spotted further entries from June and July, confirming that it actually exists.

It's actually not such a bad-looking bike either, and rather than merely serving as a platform for the thought-controlled shifters it's been developed using a wind-tunnel to achieve aerodynamic efficiency. It has integrated brakes similar to those developed by Ridley which we reported on some time ago; whereas an admittedly very attractive cowl situated between the seat stays in the design drawings seems to have been left off the finished bike, probably because anyone with even a vague understanding of aerodynamics can see immediately that it would serve little purpose at best and disturb airflow at worst.

It's not quite as spooky as it sounds - the bike doesn't have magical powers and there's no need to lubricate it with virgin's blood or anything like that. It works by way of a special helmet developed by "human/digital specialists" Deeplocal, fitted with electrodes that can detect brain activity and then transmit an instruction to shift up or down to the electronic derailleurs via control unit mounted under the saddle. At present, the rider also needs to carry a small laptop strapped to their back to control the system.

Pretty-but-probably-pointless seat stay cowl
hasn't made it through to the finished bike
According to Deeplocal engineer Patrick Miller, "There is some special software to train people - while in a neutral state if you think "shift up" the helmet reads those patterns. It's an experiment at the moment, but once you have control you can do a lot of things like change gear during a journey based on things like speed and distance." And gradient, presumably.

The results when car manufacturers get involved in bicycle design don't always work: for example, the truly awful BMW mountain bikes which were apparently designed by someone who knows nothing about bikes simply to look good on the bike rack of an X5 4x4 (though having said that, the majority of people who ticked the "MTB optional extra" box in the showroom would have done so purely to have the bike as an ornament on a car that was itself designed by a team with no understanding of off-road vehicles, so all is as it should be).

But let's not forget the Honda downhill bikes, fitted with a revolutionary gearbox system - they didn't catch on and development has apparently ground to a halt, but early race results when the bike was ridden by Greg Minaar in the World DH Championships were impressive. Car companies may know little about bikes - except those who started out as bike companies, of course - but they do have enormous resources and development facilities far in advance of those belonging to bike manufacturers. We don't see much of a future for thought-controlled gears - not least of all because we think fully-automatic gearing utilising fuzzy logic software will be the big thing in a decade or so for utility and recreational bikes, whereas modern ergonomic gear systems with bar-end shifters are so good that gear changes become entirely instinctive and to all intents and purposes automatic anyway - but overall, this sort of project can only be a good thing.

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