Do MEMS make a better bike helmet?
You may have seen the radically different replacement for the standard bicycle helmet, developed by a company called Hovding in Malmo, Sweden. In brief, it’s a scarf/airbag, sort of a miniature version of the auto airbag, complete with sensors, circuitry, trigger, and exploding mixture. There was an interesting perspective on it in a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, entitled: Safety From Sweden: An Inflatable Bike Helmet.
Whether this US$ 550, one-time-use inflating helmet is a better idea than a standard helmet (typically US$ 50 to US$ 100) is a great topic for discussion after work with your fellow engineers at the local watering hole: Does it have a better "coolness" factor? Is it more comfortable? Does it do a better job? Is it worth it?
But one thing is sure, it is yet another example of how low-cost MEMS-based sensors – in this case, gyroscopes and accelerometers – are dramatically changing the approach to long-standing designs. In turn, these sensors require support electronics, processors with embedded algorithms, power subsystems, and more to complete the final product. In short, a complex, active device replaces a basic, passive product.
Is this the future of the bicycle helmet?
I have mixed feelings about this trend of adding smarts to such basic products and often completely re-thinking them. On one side, that’s how we sometimes get significant innovation and advances, ones that change what we can do, what we understand, and how we solve a problem. On the other, we are adding complexity and new headaches to what was a long-established, fully understood, and cost-effective approach. Now, you have to read a detailed user’s manual and worry about the battery status.
It’s not just the helmet that is seeing this type of change. Nest’s Leaf, an intelligent, Internet-enabled thermostat, is another example. This $250 unit replaces the basic smart thermostat, which sells for under US$ 100 – and a plain basic one is under US$ 50 – but can do much, much more. The two questions are: Do you want it to do that much more? Is the new solution a bigger headache than the problem it addresses? Apparently Google thinks the answers are "yes" and "no," respectively, since the search engine giant is buying Nest for $3 billion.
Time and the market will tell us which, if any, of these highly advanced versions of standard, established products is judged worthy and which are just overkill; I’m not foolish or confident enough to try to predict the outcomes. But there’s no doubt that the availability of accelerometer and gyroscope sensors, and associated ease of design-in for what used to be very difficult parameters to capture (motion and acceleration) is changing how we think about what we can do. Look at what games such as the Wii controller have done with them, in an application that just a few years ago used just joystick and pushbutton controllers.
Once again, those pundits who think analog is on the way out and doomed don’t understand the reality of physical parameters, or what the real world is like. The fact is that these sensors and their support circuits are not only changing what we can do, but how we can think about some long-standing designs and products. Some will succeed, some will fail, but many of them will be very interesting to see.
Are there areas where you think these sensors will open up dramatic new design approaches? Are there places you think the dramatic difference is not worth it, and for what reason?
Bill Schweber, is an engineer, author and editor and this article first appeared on EE Times’ Planet Analog website.
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