The 'Prius of bicycles' switches gears by reading your mind

The Prius X Parlee bicycle combines light-weight design with brain-control gear shifting.

John Watson/Toyota
The PXP concept bike is a joint product of Toyota and Parlee Cycles, in Beverly, Mass. It has a carbon-fiber frame and built-in smart-phone dock.
John Watson/Toyota
The PXP concept bike is a joint product of Toyota and Parlee Cycles, in Beverly, Mass. It has an in-helmet shifter that can read a rider’s neurotransmissions.

Parlee Cycles's new bike looks ordinary enough, but the helmet gives it away. Plastic tentacles reach down from the headgear, pressing metal sensors against the cyclist's scalp.

This snug but comfortable helmet has a secret power. It reads minds.

Its array of neurotransmitters sends signals to a smart phone attached to the bicycle's handlebars, which then connects to the gear system. With a little training, a cyclist can change gears with a thought. One kind of brain wave commands the bike to downshift; another causes it to shift up.

"Sounds kind of crazy, right?" says Patrick Miller, senior creative engineer at Deeplocal, the company responsible for the digital end of this Prius X Parlee bicycle (PXP). "We underestimated how magical it would feel to shift with your mind."

PXP is a joint venture of Deeplocal; Parlee Cycles, a bike manufacturer that handcrafts carbon-fiber bikes; and Toyota, maker of the Prius hybrid car.

The team set out to create the Prius of bicycles.

Biking is already pretty energy-efficient, so aiming for a greener two-wheeler would do little good. Instead, the crew focused on another aspect of the Prius brand: getting to better understand the engine. The car's dashboard comes with a computer display that shows how energy flows through the car.

Thanks to the mounted smart phone, the Parlee design can do the same thing. A special iPhone app monitors the rider's heart rate, pace, speed, brain waves, and even habits. If a cyclist changes gears before riding up a hill, the phone will remember the location and automatically downshift next time the bike approaches the incline.

Toyota – which fully funded the project – chose Parlee for its reputation of using cutting-edge technology to revolutionize the age-old bicycle, says Colin Morisako, advertising manager for the Japanese automaker. "We really wanted to leave it up to the experts," he says.

Bob Parlee, founder of Parlee Cycles in Beverly, Mass., led the development from simple sketches in March to today's prototype. He started with the company's aerodynamic road-bike frame. The basic design "already exists. We just wanted to be innovative with it," Mr. Parlee says. "Carbon fiber gives you a better performance and greater comfort."

When Parlee first started manufacturing bikes, he handcrafted each carbon-fiber tube and shaped every metal joint. Everything was custom-built in his shop, he says. Now, his business has grown: The tubes are manufactured in Utah, the metal bits are made in California, and a team of craftsmen assembles each bicycle to the specific measurements of the rider.

For the PXP concept bike, Parlee says he designed a fork-shaped frame around the brake system and tried to clean up the lines of the bike to make it more streamlined.

"We looked for off-the-shelf technology first," says Mr. Miller, who used an iPhone, a publicly available smart phone app, and a few popular neuroheadsets made by Neurosky and Emotiv. "We combined it in a way that's never been done before."

For this project, a lightweight laptop was slipped inside the back of the cyclist's jersey. The computer "talked" to the neuroheadset, the smart phone app, and the wiring inside the bike.

Miller says it was a fast and easy solution to bridge all of the technological components of the bike together. But, if development continued, they would have created an embedded system that sits in the bike frame.

Don't expect a smooth, mind-controlled ride right away, he says. In order to make the bike function properly, a cyclist must train the software to read the brain waves correctly.

"At first, I was trying to scrunch my face and think of things – and that didn't work," Miller says. The sensors pick up crude signals, not specific thoughts, which is why practice is so important.

Miller says training neurosoftware is usually easier for young kids, who, compared with adults, usually don't focus and stress as much about each movement. "As people become more used to [the technology], the training will become easier," he says.

If the brain waves are ever misread, the cyclist can switch a setting on the smart phone app to manually control the bike.

The PXP team recently completed the project and shipped the prototype bike to the International Forum EuroBike competition in Germany. Past winners included an urban bike made of completely biodegradable flax fibers and a high-performance racing shoe that weighs just 0.4 pounds.

Toyota does not plan to manufacture bikes, and the Prius X Parlee design will not be sold on the market, Mr. Morisako says. However, Miller expects similar technology to thrive – in bicycles, gadgets, and prosthetics.

"This was purely a prototype concept," Miller says. But, "in general, neurocontrol things will become more commonplace in the tech world."

Parlee says this project has opened his eyes and made him see aerodynamic road bikes in a different light.

"It was a great opportunity to explore an [aerodynamic] road bike," Parlee says. "I'm going to continue playing with designs and variations of what we already came up with."

Parlee plans to release a new road bike in 2012 or 2013 inspired by the PXP design.

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