We talked recently with Keith McMillen, founder of Keith McMillen Instruments (KMI) and BeBop Sensors, the Berkeley, California-based company that builds smart-fabric, flexible pressure sensor solutions for original equipment manufacturers. Here’s a look at some of the most interesting products BeBop has developed – technologies you’re likely to see soon in a variety of industries, including automotive, consumer health, gaming and sports.
Modular Data Glove
A recent innovation from BeBop Sensors is a data glove designed for accurate control and navigation in virtual reality/augmented reality applications. The glove, which is available in different sensor configurations, senses hand motion and can be customized to provide both tactile and audio haptic feedback. Its sensor processing speed, with a sub-frame latency of 120 Hz, allows for real-time control. Referencing his musical roots, McMillen says: “All controllers need to be accurate and fast. If latency is more than 6-8 milliseconds, you are out of the band.”
The baseball game animation included here shows a grip sensor being employed to provide information about a batter’s swing. But there are potential medical applications as well. Compared to the highly subjective motor control test in which a doctor tells a patient to “squeeze my hands,” the grip sensor now in development is designed to provide hard numeric data that can be logged, creating a quantitative history. Data gathering can therefore be done without the presence of a doctor.
“It could go home with a person, and that person could test themselves morning and evening. The data would go up to the cloud, and if anything looks suspicious, the person’s care provider can be informed,” says McMillen.
Occupant Classification, Smart Steering Wheel and More
BeBop's Occupant Classification System gives information about an individual’s position on a car seat – something that could significantly increase the safety of air bags.
“The control of air bags uses a technology which is more than 25 years old,” says McMillen. “It provides one data point: how much fluid you displace in a bladder located under the seat fabric.”
In the event of an impact, that one measurement cues the vehicle into how strongly air bags should be deployed – low, medium or high strength. “It’s highly inaccurate,” McMillen continues. “I’m a big guy. I’m sure the safety computer would want to deploy full-strength airbags. But let’s say I want to tie my shoes. I reach forward to tie my shoes. If the airbag went off at that time, it would kill me pretty much instantly.”
By contrast, the BeBop sensor system provides 60-90 data points, so it knows when someone is leaning forward or resting with their feet on the dash. The sensor is only about half a millimeter thick, so the seat occupant can’t feel it; it can also operate in temperatures ranging from around -50 to 100 degrees Celsius. Cost-wise, according to McMillen, the system is on par with the bladder system it could replace – or even cheaper. It would also require less maintenance and calibration.
Autonomous cars would provide an additional application for the system. It could, for instance, ensure that a living person is actually sitting in the seat and holding the wheel before control shifts from auto pilot to the driver.
McMillen says that one trend he’s seeing in the automotive industry is that carmakers want to get rid of hard switches. In response, BeBop has built armrest sensors that can recognize gestures to control things like windows, temperature and seat position.
“It’s literally bringing that style of control that we all use every day into the automobile cockpit,” he says. BeBop’s Smart Steering Wheel is another example; it adds a measure of not only of comfort but also safety. A double grip, for instance, could answer a phone, or a swipe up could increase volume; the possibilities are limited only by a manufacturer’s imagination.
“We need to know more and more about what’s happening inside the cabin of a car,” he continues. “Since we have leather seats or fabric seats or floor mats, it’s very easy to put a sensor behind these surfaces, and know what’s going on.” McMillen says that he expects to see automotive sensor systems deployed into real-world car manufacturing within about two years.
Click for video: BeBop Sensors Occupant Classification System.
Why So Cheap?
You can see examples of these and other BeBop Sensors technologies on the company website. One point that might not be immediately obvious as you browse, however: once produced, these devices will be inexpensive for end users. “Here’s something you’ve got to remember,” explains McMillen. “This all grew out of the instruments that I made. And musicians do not have much money. They are very rough on their gear, and they expect it to last forever.
“We’ve kind of taken it from the lowest common denominator up. It’s a whole different design ethos.”