Ben Aris in Moscow -
In the last 20 years Russia has produced only one significant high-tech consumer-product – the Yotaphone, a smartphone distinguished by its two screens: a regular one on the front and an e-book reader screen on the back. However, in May Russia should see the second: the LiveMap 'heads-up' interactive GPS map that is projected in full colour onto the inside of a motorcycle helmet visor.
It's a fairly obvious idea and pretty cool to use. While GPS maps for cars have become ubiquitous, there is still nothing analogous for motorcycles. You can have a TomTom taped to the speedometer on your motorbike, but that means you have to look down and refocus to see where you are, which can be dangerous, especially when driving at speed. "I went online and searched for heads-up motorcycle map devices, but I couldn't find anything at all," says CEO Andrew Artishchev, who founded LiveMap and put the development team together about six years ago.
Some companies have tried to solve the problem by adapting a Google Glass splitter and using it as a motorcycle helmet display, but this is less than satisfactory, as the image is extremely small and displays next to your eye mean the refocusing is even more extreme.
Other companies have increased the size of the display by mounting an attachment to the outside of the helmet. However this ruins the aerodynamics of the helmet and the turbulence it causes at high speed can buffet the head. Plus, it still doesn’t solve the refocusing problem.
Artishchev has got round both these problems by building a projector into the habit that comes over the top of your head and, using low powered lasers, projects the map onto the inside of the helmet's visor. The whole thing is controlled by voice, basically using the same sort of technology as Apple's Siri service.
And it works. On activation, a map will appear on the inside of the visor of your helmet and using voice commands you can choose your destination, change the view or call up other services. Once underway, a series of arrows will appear in the middle of your field of vision showing the way to go. Even if you turn your head sideways, the 3-D display just swings as if on a gimlet to continue pointing the guiding arrows in the right direction.
Artishchev has not done anything technologically revolutionary, as much of the technology already exists. What he has done is overcome various engineering and business problems to put the helmet together.
LiveMap draws on Russia's long-standing world-class aviation technology; avionics is one of the few places where Russia remains world class. Heads-up displays for fighter pilots already exist, although these helmets come with a set of problems to overcome. The first is that the helmets are extremely cumbersome. Second, they draw their power from the plane, but Artishchev wanted his heads-up display to be powered by battery. Third, the display itself is monochromatic: the fighter pilot helmets only use green lasers. And finally the cost: fighter pilot helmets go for a cool $25,000 apiece.
The voice recognition software and operating system was developed by Russian software engineers, another of Russia's strengths. Artishchev then hooked up with US and Japanese producers of aspherical lenses in order to produce a projector. These are special non-symmetrical lenses that have a much more accurate point of focus, so the projector tube can be much shorter and lighter. Finally, the helmet itself is made of carbon fibre – an extremely lightweight material that is stronger than steel. "I began searching in 2008 for experts who had some experience in aviation helmets,” says Artishchev. "I ended up meeting some technicians from Moscow's Baumann Institute and from a university in St Petersburg who had worked on military helmet heads-up designs. We also have as a shareholder Anatoloi Yurlov, the chief engineer at [Russian search engine] Yandex, who is in charge of developing their search engine."
The projection system also proved to be a problem. Producing laser light consumes a lot of power and Artishchev wanted to avoid using a cable attached to the bike for power. In the end, he found the pico projector that produces low-powered laser light in a complete spectrum of colours.
Heads up, money in
The easiest bit seemed to be raising the money. Despite the Russian government's drive to promote innovation, the various state-backed funds and institutes have produced almost no commercial viable projects since they were founded. Artishchev got a $1mn grant from the Skolkovo institute, a high-tech hub sponsored by the government, and another $300,000 from the Russian Ministry of Sciences, as well as putting up a significant amount of his own cash.
"We tried to avoid going to venture capitalist companies as we wanted to develop this project on our own," says Artishchev. "And we should be able to finance the production out of the revenue stream. We are going into commercial production in May with a retail price of $1,500 per unit for pre-orders. After that, you can buy it off the shelf with the retail price of $2,000 per unit. The pre-orders should produce enough money to finance the production of the first helmets."
Artishchev has been talking to a few venture funds. German car company Audi has such a fund that was looking at Artishchev's heads-up display and also thinking of distributing the helmet together with its Ducati motorcycles, an Audi-daughter company. However the deal fell through.
The car companies might in future be interested in this sort of heads-up display because they would work just as well on a car screen as they do on a motorcycle helmet visor. "We have decided to stick with motorcycle to begin with simply because we have no competition and so it should be easy to sell. In cars there are already a wide range of alternatives that are much cheaper and so there the competition will be more difficult. But once we are establish it, it’s an obvious place to go," says Artishchev.
Artishchev has high hopes for the launch of the helmets. They go on sale in the US in May and Artishchev is expecting in the first year to sell 10,000 units, rising over the next five years to 500,000 units a year across the globe.
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