Aug. 21, 2012 -- How? That's going to be your first question after reading the headline of this article. How can a bike helmet be invisible and still protect our skulls?
Two women in Sweden -- Anna Haupt and Terese Alstin -- have invented the answer. Last year they debuted the Hövding, a bicycle helmet that remains invisible unless you need it, to solve the issues we all have with helmets. It is designed to inflate in a fraction of a second if you have an accident.
"It became mandatory for children to wear a helmet in Sweden and many people didn't use them," Haupt told ABC News. "We wanted to see if there was a way to change today's helmets and wanted people to wear them by free will, not by law."
"We found out people wanted something that was almost invisible that didn't destroy their hair or annoy them, something with the possibility to change the looks of the helmet like they can with mobile phone shells and wigs."
The two women, who had backgrounds in industrial design, came up with the Hövding to solve the issue. The Hövding looks like a collar at first, worn around the neck. Inside it is an air bag, similar to the ones in your car. Shaped like a hood, the air bag is triggered when sensors (a combination of accelerometers and gyroscopes) pick up "abnormal movements of a bicyclist in an accident," the company's website says.
The air bag can inflate and surround your head in 0.1 seconds. A small gas inflator fills it with helium. It needs to be powered on, though -- there is a power button and when it's on, LEDs light up to tell you how much electricity you have to work the inflator. There's also a sound to tell you it is powered on in case you cannot see it around your neck. That means you also have to charge the invisible helmet; it uses a microUSB port and the company says a charge lasts about a month during normal use.
And that's not all the tech inside the collar. The helmet has a "black box," similar to ones on airplanes, to record the movements of the cyclist, and recognize the acceleration and angular velocity during an accident. The data is stored in the Hövding so the company can then see what sort of accident it was.
As with any wearable gadget, the women put effort into the design. It's obviously more invisible than current helmets, and there's an added bit to make it blend in even more. The collar has a removable liner so you can change it to match your shirt.
How Safe Is It?
Can an air bag be as safe as a regular helmet? The company claims its invention is even safer. "This helmet is so much better than others; the airbag and the helium gas is much softer inside than a traditional helmet," Haupt says. According to her, 20 people have been in real accidents with the helmet on in Sweden and other European countries, and it has worked perfectly.
While there hasn't been U.S. testing of the Hövding, Jonathan Adkins, the Deputy Executive Director of the Governors Highway Safety Association in the U.S., said he thinks the technology and product look promising and could solve one of the major issues surrounding helmets: the fact that not everyone wears them.
"We'd like to see more information about the durability of this technology. It is promising and we are hopeful that this could be a way of encouraging more people to wear helmets. I see far too many bikers without helmets," Adkins told ABC News.
Europe For Now, US One Day
The Hövding has been on sale in Sweden, Norway and Denmark on the Hövding website and also in physical retail locations. But it isn't cheap -- it costs 3,998 SEK (Swedish Krona), which is equal to about 499 Euros and $600 in U.S. dollars.
But last week a film by Focus Forward Films, which is part of GE/CINELAN's Focus Forward series of 3-minute documentary films, was released about the women behind the Hövding. Since then, interest has surged everywhere, including in the U.S.
"The interest from the U.S. after this film launch has been incredible. More than half a million people have watched," Haupt said. "People are asking for rental systems in New York City and other options. We are looking forward to launching in the U.S. when we have the time and resources."
Until then, it seems like the Hövding will truly be invisible this side of the Atlantic. After that, you may see it all over the place.