For their new "Purple Pedals" campaign, Yahoo has dispatched a handful of GPS-enabled bicycles equipped with cameraphones that automatically shoot and upload photos to Flickr to riders in cities all over the world, from San Francisco to New York and soon, to Singapore, Denmark and the U.K.. The bikes come with solar panels which power the camera, and special software that uses the phone's accelerometer to snap photos every 60 seconds automatically when the bike is in motion. I was one of the lucky folks to get my hands on one of these bikes, and I've been riding it all over San Diego for over a week now. Let's take a look at how the bike works, how it was made, and how you can turn your handlebars into a tripod and photo-map your neighbourhood in similar fashion.
The Anatomy of the Flickr Bike
The Flickr bikes have two main components: a waterproof, rotating cameraphone housing mounted to the handlebars, and the solar panels and a control panel for charging the bike behind the seat.
Here's what the cameraphone housing looks like up close. You can rotate the housing backwards 180 degrees to take a photo of yourself (upside down) while you're riding, and simply turn your wheel to pan left or right. Inside there's a Nokia N95 cameraphone with a custom Python script which fires off the shutter every 60 seconds while the phone's accelerometer detects that you're in motion, and uploads the resulting photo with geotags to the bike's Flickr account.
The handlebars provide stability for the camera, and since this bike is more of a cruiser than a racer, the photos come out quite good—not at all blurry.
When you flip up the solar panels on the box behind the seat, you can see the bike's Control Panel, where you power it on, set it in "charge" or "ride" mode, or pull out an electrical plug to charge it in a pinch.
Say hello to the bike's Control Panel.
A whole team of designers and engineers got together to custom-build the Flickr bikes. To see more on how they came together, check out a series of short "Making of" videos. Here's the first installment.
The Photos and Map
Once the bike is charged and ready to roll, you just get on and start riding. A small shutter light on the back of the camera housing illuminates every minute to show the rider when it's taking a picture. Automatically, with no intervention at all, the phone uploads the photos it takes to Flickr in the background as you ride, mapping your path almost real-time. Here's my bike's Flickr account, and here's a map of a leisurely ride I took around Mission Bay yesterday here in San Diego.
Here's the full map of my bike's rides so far. Check out a slideshow of the bike's photos here:
Keep track of more Flickr bikes as they ride around other cities:
- Billyburg's Bike (New York, NY)
- Amit's Bike and FlickrHQ's Bike (San Francisco, CA)
- Jessamyn's Bike (Bethel, VT)
- Dogseat's Bike (Jersey City, NJ)
Yahoo's official "Start Wearing Purple" site (warning: Flash-heavy, with sound) has a "Purple Pedals" section where you can see where the bikes currently are, how they were made, and even download an owner's manual.
Turn Your Handlebars into a Tripod
After the first day of riding my Flickr bike around town, I was immediately frustrated by my inability to see what the bike's camera could see. While I appreciated the designers' intention to hide the technology and buttons from the rider as much as possible, I still wanted more control. Since the housing covers the cameraphone's screen, there's no way to frame photos as you ride. (Also, while the cameraphone is high-res for a phone, the photos are still not as high-quality as a regular digital camera.) So, to take advantage of all the riding I'd be doing anyway, I mounted my handheld digicam on top of the cameraphone housing with some zip ties. This way when I stop at a particularly scenic place, I can frame the photo using the Canon's screen (which is at the same angle as the cameraphone's lens), and hit the shutter myself. Here's what my DIY camera mount looks like from the front:
And from the back (what I see when I'm riding).
Of course, the handheld cam doesn't shoot or geo-tag automatically. I have to stop to hit the shutter, but it's let me get some much higher-quality shots around town than the cameraphone.
If you've got a phone that's compatible with software like Yahoo's ZoneTag, or you're just willing to use a consumer digital camera and geotag your photos yourself when you get home (using something like this quick geo-tagging bookmarklet), you too can turn your handlebars into a tripod and go out and discover your neighbourhood.
Gina Trapani, the editor of Lifehacker, is having a ball with her Flickr bike. Her feature Geek to Live appear s every week on Lifehacker.