The iPhone has grown from a leading edge device for early adopters to a common sight almost everywhere I go. Whether I'm in the office, at a restaurant, or hiking in the hills, I see someone with an iPhone in his or her hand. Recently, I have also seen them being used by bicycle and motorcycle riders; and for more than just music. An iPhone can give you voice directions, track your progress on a map, let others know where you are, let you send and receive messages, warn you about speed traps, and even project a heads-up display on your windshield.
This article is focused on motorcycling, but many of the things I wrote about are fully applicable to bicycling and other forms of transportation.
The most important accessory for a motorcycle rider is a helmet, and the most important iPhone accessory is a headset/microphone combination that fits comfortably inside it. There are high-end helmets with these features built-in, and I was thinking of dropping just under a grand for one of them and perhaps wire up my own iphone button or just do without. Then I found iBike Rider (ibike-rider.com/english/index.html), a product developed by a French company that lets you add these capabilities to your existing helmet. You cannot buy directly from the site, but you can find a distributor by e-mailing them at firstname.lastname@example.org; however, go to their site first for more information. There are other manufactures that make Velcro based iPhone compatible systems, but so far, iBike has the more complete offering.
The different elements are attached to your helmet using Velcro patches so you can place them anywhere you want. The earpieces are applied inside the helmet; the microphone and its controls are attached on the outside of the helmet as you can see in the image. I would like to send a big thank you to my local shop, CycleGear in San Francisco, Ca. for letting me take pictures using a new helmet because my current one is pretty scratched up. That is another nice thin g about iBike-type Velcro solution, when I start to use another helmet, I simply apply more Velcro and I'm good to go.
Because the earpieces are attached with Velcro, you can move them around for different riding situations. For example, when I'm riding in the middle of nowhere, I like to move them closer to my ears to improve the sound. When I'm doing my daily, short commutes, I move them further away from my ears or remove them entirely to make sure I can hear what's going on around me.
Warning! Distracted biking is dangerous biking!
After 20 years of riding, I take great caution when I'm riding my motorcycle. Close calls are almost always associated with losing focus, even for a few seconds. Employ the iPhone and the solutions I describe in this article with great caution. NEVER blast music or anything else through your headset such that you cannot hear what's going on around you. Also, because the driving environments can change in an instant, never look at the iPhone screen unless it's fully safe to do so. Finally, never talk and ride at the same time unless you are sure that it is completely safe to do so (and you have a number of years of riding experience). As mentioned, I have 20 years under my belt, but I still pull over if I need to place or answer a phone call, especially when I'm riding in heavy traffic areas.
Know the laws of your state !
If you want to use your iPhone when you ride, check your state's laws on the use of headsets—they can differ dramatically. For example, California allows you to ride with one earpiece, but some states do not allow you to use any headsets, and others have no laws regarding this at all. In my case, I keep both earpieces off my ears and mount them high in the helmet. The sound quality suffers, but I would rather sacrifice audio fidelity and hear what's going on around me. Here is a link to find out more about motorcycle-related laws in your state (calsci.com/motorcycleinfo/PrintLaws.html).
One of the best things about the iBike setup is its headset button. Located on the cable that connects your iPhone to the microphone boom, the button is large enough to be used easily, even when you're wearing thick gloves.
Arm mount for your iPhone
The iBike setup provides a strap-on arm mounting system for the iPhone. (It's like the one the bounty hunter Boba Fett had in the Star Wars movies. Bet you didn't know he had an iPhone did you?). I've mounted the iPhone on the handlebars using this holder but had problems reading the screen. It was just a little too far away for easy viewing, and at times, road vibrations caused the screen to jiggle too much.
With the iPhone strapped to my arm, I can hold it steady and close to my field of vision long enough to get the information I need from the display, usuallychecking a map or getting driving directions. The point is, I'm not looking down at my handlebars; my head's up, and I can still see the road. Each rider will have their own perspectives, so it's nice to switch between handlebar mounting and the arm mounting that I like.
Supports external battery
Using your iPhone while riding can drain your battery quickly. To prevent this, iBike's arm mount has enough room to connect your iPhone to an external battery. You can get the external battery that is offered with the iBike kit, but there is defiantly enough room to place a thin external battery from other manufacturers.
GPS navigation and traffic alerts
The most common thing I used the iBike Rider setup for is to listen to music, news, or a podcast while I'm riding. My second most common use is navigation. Because the new iPhone 4 lets me multitask, I leave a GPS app or a text messaging alert program running in the background. Depending on the ride, you may or may not need driving directions, but traffic alerts come in very handy. A number of these programs are available, including AT&T Navigator (free, app2.me/3101), TomTom U.S.A. ($39.99, app2.me/3102), and MotionX GPS ($2.99, app2.me/2821). These programs not only give you traffic alerts, they will suggest alternate routes.
An iPad would probably work better, but I don't have the guts to Velcro an iPad to my motorcycle. (If anyone has an old scratched-up iPad they want to sell me cheap, let me know and I'll write up a "how to" and submit it as a future article.
SMS to voice
I do not ever text when I'm driving or riding my motorcycle. But it's nice to be able to receive an SMS while riding in case I need to pull over and respond. In my case, I have web traffic alerts from my server sent to me via SMS if there are problems, but these can also keep you from getting in trouble when you are going to meet someone.
The very first time I tried the DriveSafe.ly application (drivesafe.ly), I was on the way to meet someone for dinner. I ran into traffic which put me low on fuel, so I had to hunt around in an unfamiliar area to find a gas station. It was a nice evening. I was biking in the hills. I was listening to music on my iPhone …I wasn't paying attention to time. Next thing I knew, the music cuts out and a voice says: "New message…. Where are you?" Oops! I was late. I pulled over, called my friend, and explained that I had to find a gas station and would be 20 minutes late. There are many people I know who get far more text messages than I do, but for that one example, that was a critical message. Since it's illegal to text and drive in California, I think most people would find this feature very useful, even when driving a car
When I first discovered DriveSafe.ly, it was a jailbroken app. Fortunately, the developer has submitting it to Apple for inclusion in the App Store. Hopefully, by the time this article makes publication, this app will be approved.
If you simply MUST send an SMS, tweet, or facebook update while you're driving, check out ShoutOut (free, app2.me/3178), a full-featured messaging app with voice-to-text capability. ShoutOut "hears" your voice message, converts it to text, and sends it as an SMS or an update to your Twitter or Facebook account. This could be useful for when you pull over for fuel and want to send a quick update to other riders.
Avoiding speed traps
If speed is your thing, you need to keep this app running in the background. Trapster (free; iPhone/iPod touch: app2.me/2861; iPad: app2.me/3179) is a simple, little app that reports when you are getting close to a known speed trap area or red light camera. I do not have much use for this app, but I did give it a try. It seemed to work well enough, but be warned: speed traps are not always manned and new ones appear all the time.
There are plenty of apps for tracking your position (GPS logging), and most of them are made for bicyclists and runners. However, there are two that I find more useful if you are doing a ride with other people.
GPS Tracker (free, app2.me/3184) is a very simple, straightforward app that sends updates to a server. Anyone with your password can then log in and see your progress. As of this writing, the iPhone 4.0 still does not support running this application in the background, but they are working on it. A cool element of the instMapper service is the exposed API. An app that currently does support running in the background is MoosTrax (free, app2.me/3186). I have not played with it very much, but it seems to work pretty well.
Vbookz – more than just an ebook.
You can already listen to books via podcast, but I actually prefer a new app called vBookz ($1.99, app2.me/3185). This cool, little application takes an eBook or ePub file and reads it to you in a pleasant voice using text-to-voice technology from the Acapela Group.
The voice translation is not perfect by a long shot, but it's good enough to get the meaning of the text. However, the real win here is that since the text is displayed, I can both read a book and then continue to listen to it, where I left off. You can set the reading speed as well as choose the voice type. This is very useful if what you are listening to is more about information consumption and less about enjoyment of the writing. There are 30,000 books available and because the text is read in real time, the download time and storage of each book is much smaller than getting a set of sound files. This is pretty important when you're on the road and you're only getting an Edge connection. As nice as all this is, the exciting part is the possibility of being able to upload your own text! I chatted to the creator via email and asked about this possibility. They are working on it now.
Gear up and Ride!
If you have not read the sidebar on being safe when riding, read it. If you have, read it again. Riding with your iPhone provides a lot of benefits, but it's all for naught if it distracts you and you plow into stopped traffic.
The iPhone is changing the biking experience by giving us access to features previously reserved for cars. However, the best is yet to come. There are apps in development that will convert your e-mail to voice and call you with that message, I test rode a bicycle that will wirelessly send you information about your ride, and I know of an electric motorcycle developer working on the same technology. I plan to buy an electric motorcycle soon. When I do, who knows what features will be incorporated? I may get voice alerts from my iPhone letting me know when my battery reaches a preset energy level. Better yet, maybe the iPhone will tell the motorcycle to change how it operates to extend my range. It might let me know where the next charging stations are and, with a press of a button, give me turn-by-turn voice directions to get there.
The future of biking is so bright; I may need to wear shades!
[Author's note: I wore a beard for three weeks to support the San Francisco Giants in the 2010 World Series (see photos of me wearing the Cycle Gear helmet). I'll be shaving that off now that the Giants WON THE WORLD SERIES. My sympathies to Rangers fans.]