We wanted to share some of the lessons we learnt as we developed Blubel and tested the prototypes with various cyclists. In this post, Sasha, Blubel’s founder, gives the low-down on her prototyping journey.
Our prototyping journey with Blubel started at my kitchen table, and in true Blue Peter Style, included some yoghurt pots, sticky-backed plastic and velcro. I wasn’t exactly sure what the device would look like or even how it would function, so it was crucial for me to spend some time playing around with different features to truly understand its full potential. Instead of giving a fuzzy mandate to an electronics freelancer, I decided to give it a go myself.
With no prior experience in electronics engineering, I bought an Arduino Inventor’s kit and started geeking around to my family’s amusement. Given that no one really knew what I was building, it must have looked rather disconcerting, but I persevered! I joined Hackspace, a great makers’ space community, where I learnt from the hackers and makers to build Blubel 0.1: a ring of LEDs, ingeniously housed in a small yoghurt pot, strapped to the handlebars with velcro.
As basic as this was it gave us a great opportunity to test and develop the basic app that Alessio, our CTO and app developer, had built, and let our cycling friends try it too. It was a tentative start, but one through which we learnt a lot:
1. Navigation: the long and short of it
We tried a number of different ways to guide the cyclist. Maps are just too complex to interpret at speed. Actually, what the cyclist needs to know is the general direction in which they are going. So we have a blue light showing the long distance compass. The shorter instructions are also pretty critical, particularly in a complex road system like London’s, where there are numerous one-way streets and crossings. So Blubel also shows turn-by-turn navigation to visually alert the user when to prepare for and eventually make the next turn.
2. Pointing in the right direction
What happens if you’ve got a roundabout with more than one left and right? This is something we came across quite a few times in London and we decided to add a compass-style bearing to our indicators so that they literally point you in the right direction. With Blubel you will not find yourself stunted by several exits at a roundabout!
3. Sounds are important
Cycling through city streets forces you to be hyper-aware of everything around you – this is why we are not convinced by headphones in ears for instructions. I personally don’t feel comfortable not being able to use one of my senses when there’s traffic all around! We were also concerned that having a device on the handlebars would be a distraction if you had to keep checking directions. From our trials, we added a little buzzer in the device, which warns you when there is an upcoming turn, so the rest of the time you can keep your eyes on the road.
4. Bright lights
Although testing glowing yoghurt pots wasn’t quite what our early adopters had bargained for, it revealed a really key challenge: how to make sure that the lights are visible in all weather conditions. This is why Blubel has sensors that dim the LEDs when you’re in a darker environment (say going through a tunnel or cycling in the evening) so that you are not blinded. When it’s bright outside, on the other hand, the lights are on full beam.
5. Surface touch
Lucky we housed our first prototype in plastic yoghurt pots because they had another fundamental flaw – the glossy surface! Trust us – you just can’t read anything when the light is bouncing off the top, so we went for a matte finish on our device. It’s also quite nice to hold – like a little pebble! Overall aesthetics were important to us too, and we will be sharing more on our design decisions in a future post.
As always, we welcome your feedback, so get in touch if you have any thoughts or ideas on how we can improve Blubel!