Monday, December 26, 2011

Cool Tech from the Holiday Blogging Desk

Apple sent out a post-Xmas promotional email this morning that featured an interesting device / gift, the iBike Dash Cycling Computer.  They also sell the deluxe model. Being the cyclist and technology nut that I am, this link actually pulled me through for a look.

In years past, my friends and I have talked about how cool it would be to be able to use your iPhone as a bicycle computer. In our minds, it was the potential of being able to carry one less device combined with all of the cool functionality that is native to the iPhone that held such great promise. So I clicked through to check it out.

Brief Aside: My History of Using Cycling Computers
My first cyclometer was a Cateye Solar. This wonderful device logged speed, distance and cadence. When my Cateye Solar died, I didn't replace it (not much money and most cyclometers didn't display cadence). When I upgraded to my current bike, I went ahead and purchased a new Vetta cyclometer that just logged speed and distance -- my main interest at that point was simple distance tracking. But when I started training for The Death Ride, a coaching seminar that we attended recommended using a heart rate monitor. I have always been skeptical of heart rate monitors -- I've seen to many people addicted to the tech of cycling and miss the part about finding love in basic time on the bike. But the argument for using a heart rate monitor -- to maximize your body awareness and better manage your pace for demanding rides -- made sense to me.

My next (and current) cycling computer is the Polar 720i. It tracks all of the important cyclometer stuff -- distance, speed, and cadence -- but it also adds heart rate, elevation and temperature. It also uses this data to do an approximate calculation of calories burned. You can even add a power calculation by taking measurements off the chain, but I didn't see any ROI in investing in that option. Having logged many miles using the Polar, I can say that there are things that I like about it and things that I don't, but it has become the standard by which I measure other cycling computers.

Several years ago, Garmin introduced a cycling computer that integrated a GPS into the system -- functionality that I feel like marked the next logical advance in cyclometers. But when I looked at the early models, it seemed like there were some issues that outweighed the cool features for me (I think software support was one issue). Since then, I've hoped for improvements, but I haven't been logging enough miles to actively track the technology evolution.

Using the iPhone as a Cycling Computer: the iBike
The iBike brings the promise of using your iPhone as a cyclometer to reality. Basically, the unit is your iPhone, combined with a waterproof handlebar mount, and some Bluetooth-based sensors that can allow you to track speed, distance, cadence and power. Since it uses your iPhone, you have GPS tracking for route and elevation. All cool features.

One thing that I've always hated about the Polar is that it only works with Windows -- there's no software support for Mac -- it's one of the only reasons that I actually own a PC. Since the iBike works on the iPhone, I would expect that their software might have actually be better than the Polar, but I haven't explored it in detail. Another thing that might be cool about the iBike is that, since it uses the iPhone, they have more flexibility in designing the interface. In short, you might expect that this flexibility would translate to more options for you, the user -- I don't know if that's true, but it could be cool.

Of course, after looking at it more closely, the iBike has a pretty serious downside -- battery life. The site specs say "5 hours of continuous operating time when used with the spare battery". While this might be great more than enough for casual riders or shorter weekday rides, if you want to log serious distance on this thing, I expect that your going to wrestle with battery issues. This strikes me as the fatal flaw with this whole concept -- say what you will about the capabilities or problems with the Polar watch, even if you ran it continuously, you don't have to change the battery more than about once a year or two. It's also unlikely that your battery will die when you're in the middle of a ride. That may not be a big issue when you're riding back and forth to work, but if you've been out to Pescado, just left San Gregorio and you're on your way up Tunitas Creek, you're probably not going to find a place to plug in and recharge.

Imagine the Possibilities: ANT+
All that being said, the aspect that I found most interesting about the iBike is it's use of ANT+ sensor technology. Before reading about it in the iBike specs, I was unfamiliar with ANT+. Here's a clip about ANT+:
ANT+ facilitates the collection, automatic transfer and tracking of sensor data for monitoring information anywhere, anytime.  The key advantage of this unique managed network is device specific interoperability which enables wireless communication with other ANT+ products.  This interoperability function (added to the base ANT protocol) now facilitates the reliable transfer of data between sensors and display devices such as watches, heart rate monitors and bike computers.  Applicable in sport, wellness management and home health monitoring, ANT is proven with several million nodes shipped to date.
ANT+ is basically an interface standard for communicating with these motion sensors. On the site, they also show an announcement at Interbike where Fox has combined ANT+ sensing with their mountain bike shocks and a special adjustment mechanism to make dynamically adjusting shocks. Imagine your mountain bike adjusting it's suspension based on the terrain and your desired ride characteristics. Cars have been doing this kind of stuff for years, but there are wires and electronics and systems. With ANT+, small wireless sensors can be integrated into devices that previously would have been implausible. When linked to an intelligent central brain, imagine the possibilities. Very cool.

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