Monday, December 31, 2012

Still Using a Pencil in 21st Century

Last summer on our two-bike travel out to the west coast, we took along two new electronic "toys": the Android phone and a bike-to-bike bluetooth communicator. So basically I went from the eighties into the 21st century on this trip.  And it was actually fun and probably safer too.

The main reason I took the Android phone and helmet communicator along was to enhance the safety of the trip. But each of these devices offered a huge variety of functions, many more than I would want to use while riding. I did some experimenting before the trip, and settled on a safe way to enjoy the motorcycling experience, while getting some valuable use out of the devices.

The Scala Rider communications headset was actually capable of interacting with the Android phone, doing such tasks as answering phone calls, dialing the phone through voice commands, playing music from the Android device, and piping the Navigator commands through the earphones.  I decided that none of those functions were important enough to me to risk fiddling with on the road.  It's not that they weren't easy to use - just not easy enough to be safe.  And in my opinion these capabilities did not contribute enough extra safety to the ride to compensate for the extra fiddling that would be required.

All I wanted from the Scala Rider was simply to be able to speak with Mary Ann while we were riding, so that we didn't get lost or separated, and so that we could warn each other of situations.  The Scala headset was capable of doing this job with a minimum of fiddling. Mostly it involved turning the devices on or off, adjusting the volume, putting the headset in standby mode to save the batteries, or putting it back to ready mode to communicate.  We also needed to adjust the microphone position as it was very critical and sometimes got bumped while riding.  Once I set the volume to hear through my earplugs, the device could adjust the volume itself to compensate for background noise at speed. But a few times I put on the helmet without earplugs, and I just about jumped off the bike when Mary Ann said something to me with the volume set on max.

I would put the communicator device on standby when we didn't need to talk. But even out in the middle of nowhere, we would occasionally see something that we wanted to talk about, for example the dust devils in Washington state.  Either one of us could put both devices on standby or reactivate them at the touch of a button on the helmet pod.  It was quite simple, although there was a few seconds time delay.  Ironically the buttons were much easier than the hands-free "voice activation" system that required major amounts of yodelling or funny noises to finally get it to work.  Anyway, Mary Ann left that job mostly to me once she discovered how tricky the voice activation was.  The batteries were good enough that we could ride for a day always in active mode, and a couple of days if we using the battery saving standby mode.

There are many motorcycle handlebar mounts available for Android phones.  Apparently riders use these things while riding, which I think is a bit dangerous.  I have seen many of the arguments on rider forums, and usually it comes down to the fact that some people think it's as safe as talking on the phone.  Simply put, I disagree with with using phones while riding, and surfing the internet is no better.  So I would only feel safe if these things truly provided minimal distraction, while providing maximum safety.

Safety, in my mind, partly depends on navigation.  When you get lost, and are driving around looking for the correct road, you are not as safe as you could be if you simply knew where you needed to go.  So a good navigation aid that does not distract while riding is a safety feature. If I needed some navigation, I used the Android phone and Google maps before getting on the bike.  Usually in the motel or campsite, I would check out the route and write down large step by step turns on notepaper, which I then put in the tank bag's clear map pocket. I don't even like looking at paper maps while riding.  But step by step instructions, can be seen clearly in less than one second, are helpful.  Usually I write the route number or road name and L,S, or R. (left straight  or right). I don't often get lost that way, and when I do, I pull over and check Google maps on the Android phone.

Google maps was really impressive a few times, for example coming out of the Norwood Hotel in Winnipeg, which was on a one-way street going the wrong direction.  It routed me down a back alley out of the parking pot and back to a street going the right direction to get on the Trans-Canada going west.  I would never have seen that even on a detailed city map (which I didn't have anyway).  I didn't even see the alley while standing in the parking lot (at first).

I also wanted the Android phone for weather radar and weather forecasts.  I usually checked the weather in the morning before setting out.  But while on the road, I would pull over onto a side street and stop if I saw some unexpected dark clouds.  The phone was always carried next to my wallet and passport, and I only let the phone out of my sight when I was recharging it.  The neatest thing about the Android phone weather apps (I used "The Weather Network" app mostly) was that they would show your position on a map with both the roads and the current precipitation.   A few times I or Mary Ann would be tempted to just scroll the weather map around to see where we were and where we were headed.  But the weather map is not an ideal replacement for good old Google maps, because the scrolling speed is very slow due to the precipitation download (I guess).

The weather radar did not prevent us from getting wet once.  It only rained three times on our trip, because of a record setting drought.  But one of those times, it was a sudden thunderstorm that hit at rush hour while we were on the Malahat highway coming into Victoria.  It's a narrow mountain pass type of road with no safe places to pull over, and so I just kept going until we reached the first traffic light.  Then I tried a left turn into a gas station, but the left turn traffic light refused to work, so we got soaked before deciding to continue on to the next intersection.  Altogether, I guess it was not a brilliant test of the radar weather app, but I am still looking forward to using it again if we go east, where I'm sure it will get a proper test.  It is very useful to help judge when to put on a rainsuit, and when to take it off.

It was also handy to have a cell phone a few times, and I've never even used one of those while motorcycling.  It's also a good emergency device.  And the Android cell phone's camera was also very handy, as it was almost always with us.  If I could have seen all this electronic stuff in action twenty years ago, I would have been very impressed.

Picture: Mary Ann in BC using a pencil despite the modern technology available.

1 comment:

  1. The technology is great. As you say, who'd have believed, twenty years ago, that all this would be possible.

    But distracted driving is distracted driving. Fiddling around with electronic devices while on the move diverts attention and reduces one's ability to react properly to situations which can, literally, arise in moments.

    Helmet-to-helmet communications can be fine. And a GPS display on the handlebars may be helpful. But taking it much further than that would be irresponsible use of the technology.