Students' bike-lighting system attracts international attention

“Can I buy this like right now???? It’s awesome!!!!”

“You need to ... make this a real product that people can buy in stores.”

“How can I buy it since I live in Brazil?”

When then-sophomore design majors Jonathan Ota and Ethan Frier uploaded a video of Project Aura, a prototype bicycle-lighting system, to their Vimeo page last May, they did not expect the outpouring of enthusiasm that they would receive. Nor did the two expect 20,000 views by May 17, seven days after the upload, or the countless requests from people all over the world hungry to buy their product. (The quotes above are sample comments left on their blog.) Ota and Frier were satisfied with simply finishing their prototype, which was the focus of a small grant they received from the Undergraduate Research Office.

Since then, their work has won an award for transportation design, the video of the prototype has received almost 200,000 views, and the two students have been trying to figure out how to respond to the enthusiasm for their work.

Project Aura is one of a small number of bicycle-lighting systems that focuses on illuminating cyclists from the side. It is the exception rather than the rule to find such lighting in a local bike shop.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there were 625 cyclist fatalities in 2009 in the U.S., 33.2 percent of which occurred at intersections.

Even though the fraction of time spent riding through intersections is small relative to the total time of a typical bike ride, the danger of riding through intersections is high, making visibility of cyclists from all angles essential.

The system works in tandem with standard front and rear blinking lights, which do little for side visibility. It relies on six LED lights attached to the rims of both the front and back wheel. The LEDs project light onto the rim, which illuminates a large, highly visible surface area. When the wheels spin, two bright circles of light are created that are visible from a wide range of angles allowing vehicles to see and respond. The lights receive their power from internal dynamos in the hubs of the wheels, which eliminate the need for batteries, or even remembering to flip an “on” switch.
According to Ota, working on bike lights was born out of necessity. “My roommates and I just started living off campus last year and relied on biking to commute to and from school ... [and] we had never biked daily (and nightly) on Pittsburgh streets before. It’s a lot to take as a young rider,” he said. By making their lights fully automated, not to mention eye-catching, they focused on drawing novice cyclists toward bike safety in a low-effort way.

“We began to notice lapses in safety and lack of awareness about how to be safe that were pretty striking,” Ota noted. As product designers, their research brought them to lighting as a unique aspect of bike safety that combines personal behavior, a physical product, and a highly visual output. “Ethan and I looked at how to make cyclists safer, how to make young cyclists want to be safe, and how to encourage more people to start biking.”
The duo is continuing work on Project Aura this fall during a study abroad in Eindhoven, Netherlands. Simultaneously, they are updating the concept of their prototype, investigating various methods of production, and figuring out how to bring their product to market. Going this far beyond the design prototyping process is something design students are not challenged with routinely. Ota added, “It’s not something you really encounter everyday while in school.... This definitely pushes our learning to a much higher level.”

Carnegie Mellon is facilitating their transition from designers to businessmen and marketers. They are getting help filing a patent from the Technology Transfer Office, and receiving advice from Project Olympus, a start-up facilitator, according to an recent interview on the CMU home page.

When Ota and Frier get back from Holland, they plan to hit the ground running with the next phases of this project. “We’re looking to put together a team of other students (who want) to be a part of the development of Aura,” Ota said.