Designing with the motorcycle lifestyle in mind.
The thunder rumble of the engine. The highway stretching into the distant and lonely horizon. Bugs smashing on the helmet. Every second stretching the limits of one’s physical and perceptual abilities. Even in our increasingly technology-saturated culture, the dream of conquering the vast unknown with nothing but a motorcycle and one’s wits lives on. But these two worlds have yet to come together; a truly connected riding experience has yet to be achieved.
Current attempts to add connectivity to motorcycles are — like an ill-fitting helmet — at best clumsy and at worst dangerous. They do not address the unique needs of motorcycle riders and, as a result, many riders resort to hacks like taping directions to their gas tank, shoving their smartphone into their helmet, or avoiding technology completely. At frog we see this as an opportunity to understand the motorcycle lifestyle, so that we can begin to generate better solutions that are informed by developments in wearables, heads-up displays (HUDs), and smart fabrics. To explore these needs, we conducted a series of interviews with motorcycle riders in the United States and uncovered several promising areas of focus for the future of the connected ride.
The technology available to motorcycle riders is insufficient in part because the product design process often relies on conventions and norms established by car drivers, even though motorcycle riders have less time to look at displays, less time to react to dangerous situations, and often utilize all four limbs to balance and operate their vehicle.
Motorcycle riders need intense focus to ride safely. They are also exposed to the elements, meaning their gear is not only a fashion statement but also armor providing crucial protection against the elements and the road. When designing the future of the connected motorcycle experience, we must consider the entire ecosystem: safety gear, smartphones or other communication devices, and the motorcycle, all of which must be seamlessly connected. An enhanced experience should feel invisible, so riders can keep their focus where it ought to be — on the road.
If driving a car can be compared to watching a movie, sitting in a relaxed position and seeing the landscape pass from behind safe glass screens, then riding a motorcycle is more like being in the movie, experiencing the rich detail of every moment. Motorcyclists are rarely relaxed. They are focused and hyperaware of their surroundings and connection with their machine. They can feel the temperature of the air change from mile to mile and smell the difference between a desert, a forest, and a city. Reflexes quicken. Reaction times heighten. With an appreciation for the unique experiences motorcycles offer, we can improve them through connectivity.
“Riding a motorcycle is the closest thing to flying,” said rider François Ngyuen. “I love the connection I get with the world around me, the freedom, the danger, and the constant reminder of how fragile life is.”
When riding, motorcyclists need to limit the use of their hands to steering and must view displays for less time than car drivers. Thus, navigation becomes an issue. Significantly improved products are beginning to emerge. Adafruit, a company that sells DIY electronics, has designed a helmet to help make navigation more efficient. It has a built-in system that uses flashing lights, on the left or right, to let the rider know where to turn. Although the rider has to manually enter the coordinates of a destination, it is safer than using a smartphone while riding.
Another promising solution is made by Skully, which works on what the company calls the “world’s smartest motorcycle helmet.” The helmet features a transparent HUD, a “near 180 degree” rearview camera, and GPS navigation that can save maps when cell service is not available. In the future, navigation cues could be incorporated into every aspect of our connected motorcycle ecosystem. These solutions could employ haptic signals in the rider’s gloves and jacket, minimally invasive visual cues in the helmet visor, and voice commands. Imagine a system that is more like a sixth sense — perhaps even a digital interface that is completely without screens.
For rider Erik Manley, communication while on his motorcycle is paramount. “For the most part, I like being disconnected when I ride. I never long for maps, diagnostics — any kind of data, really. But when I need to be connected, it’s aggravating,” he told us. “I’m always running late and if I want to let my wife know, it’s a whole production to pull over, take off the helmet, gloves, jacket, etc. just to text something simple like, ‘running 30 mins late.’ Since I’m always texting the same thing, I’ve always wished I could just tap something on my bike or my helmet to relay a pre-programmed text to a pre-programmed contact.”
With advancements in the navigation arena and the development of minimal-screen user interfaces, one can imagine quick communication functionalities being a natural addition. In fact, Erik may soon be able to notify his wife with one tap that he is running late or send his location to her with two taps.
Another need for riders is the ability to communicate with each other. “On long-distance rides, my boyfriend and I use comm-systems to communicate,” said rider Stacie London. “It is really helpful for safety and also sharing an experience.” Ideally, comm-systems would be part of the helmet — either an earpiece or a small speaker — and fellow riders could notify one another when they wanted to pull over or make a turn. As Stacie mentioned, the solution needs to be safe and noninvasive.
There is an inherent tension between motorcycle riders and car drivers. The two groups often rely on different reaction speeds. Motorcyclists are also much more exposed to danger and need to be more nimble and agile than car drivers. Additionally, motorcycles are physically smaller; when cars are involved in accidents with motorcyclists, many drivers state they simply did not see the motorcyclist.
“I would love a ‘proximity radar’ that detects how fast a car is coming up behind me and warns me and that driver about a potential collision by calculating how fast he’s going compared to me,” said rider Emile Hoffman.
Unlike a car, the bike and rider should be one and the technology that helps should be invisible. “You are fully exposed as a motorcyclist,” said François. “It would be nice to have something that communicates to a car when a motorcycle is approaching or nearby. Maybe I am notified via audio in my helmet if there is a car swerving recklessly.”
Safety, communication, and navigation are all major issues for riders, but so is comfort. While a lot of gear focuses on the necessary safety elements, it does not always employ the latest technology; several riders we spoke to lamented the state of their armor. Erik told us that his gear was one of the most frustrating aspects of riding, but that he felt compelled to wear it, to “reduce the chance of being skinned alive in a low-speed accident.”
In conversations with rider Anthony Gregorio, we heard that his worst memories of riding were related to being cold and wet. “Even when I had my best gear on, I can remember some really cold and miserable rides,” Anthony said. “I’d go somewhere in the day and be perfectly warm, but then the night fell and the ride home sucked. I would love it if there was a way to better control my climate when needed.”
The future of wearable technology will enable interactivity across the body, allowing designers to leverage technological advances to enhance the riding experience. Due to the need for noninvasive, intuitive solutions that do not compromise the riding experience, many believe smart textiles and fiber science — more than gadgets — are the future of wearable tech for riders.
Beyond the safety and personal climate improvements mentioned previously, there are other ways to increase the functionality of motorcycle gear. Flexible solar panels have inspired designers to come up with clothes and accessories that can power electronics. Start-up company Wearable Solar uses the technology to make lightweight wired garments that enable wearers to charge a smartphone up to 50 percent if worn in the sun for a full hour. This would be a huge benefit to riders who spend hours driving, often in the sun, between locations where they can charge electronics.
When designing the future of the connected motorcycle experience, we must consider the entire ecosystem: safety gear, smartphones or other communication devices, and the motorcycle, all of which must be seamlessly connected.
Motorcycles predate planes, the internet, and cell phones, but throughout their history, riding a motorcycle has remained an iconic definition of cool. In our increasingly connected society, humans are more and more reliant on technology to help them solve problems and navigate their life. Both new and savvy riders increasingly expect connected experiences in all that they do. Yet, they still value the aspirational authenticity of motorcycle brands and culture. Maintaining the authenticity — and iconic feeling — of riding while catering to these changing consumer expectations will be critical for both motorcycle manufacturers and adjacent businesses.
By listening to riders’ needs and aspirations, the possibility of an authentic connected ride becomes real. Only then will connectivity add value to what rider Kate Inglis described as the moment all riders are chasing. “Your senses are so consumed by the task at hand that there is no worry or pain or anticipation,” she said. “Only the joy of moving through space; the freedom you feel from the wind slapping against you, as you are propelled by your own mastery of your machine.”
All images used with permission from Monica Semergiu / @monicasemergiu (Instagram).
As a Director of Business Development, Lauren combines her interests in psychology, technology, and business to grow and develop the frog portfolio globally. She has worked and lived in seven countries, bringing a unique perspective to her work.
Lynda Lucas is a Senior Visual Designer in frog's New York studio, an adjunct professor at Parsons, and editor of an artful magazine about women motorcyclists called La Motocyclette.