Optical Sensor for Heart Rate Built Into a Helmet
The results of a reader poll we did a while back revealed that the majority of RBR readers strap on your heart rate monitor before every ride. I do the same. Or at least I used to.
No, I haven’t given up measuring my HR. Instead, I’ve found a way to do it without bothering with the strap anymore.
The LifeBEAM helmet, which we first wrote about in March 2013 during its crowd-funding pre-launch days, is the answer. The helmet features an optical sensor built into the lid that measures your pulse rate (and calories burned) and transmits the data via Bluetooth 4.0 or ANT+ to the array of devices we use these days (Garmin and other computers and head units, smart phones, etc.).
LifeBEAM is an Israeli tech company that got its start developing biosensor equipment for aerospace and military applications (pilot and astronaut helmets, and special forces troops). That tech has trickled down into cycling helmets, running hats and similar applications now.
Out of the Box
It looks like any other helmet, until you peer a little closer and notice the unit housing the battery and transmitter built seamlessly into the back of the helmet (see top, right photo). Then you see the small optical sensor at the front of the helmet (built into the headband padding on the helmet, see photo at left) where it contacts your forehead to measure heart rate and calories burned. Small wires route through the fitting system on either side of the helmet, connecting the optical sensor to the transmitter.
It’s all built into a Lazer Genesis model helmet that meets both U.S. and European safety standards. Lazer is a well-respected Belgian manufacturer. The transmitter/ battery compartment adds 50g in weight to the helmet, according to the maker. The standard Genesis helmet (without the LifeBEAM technology) has a stated weight of 280g.
That’s an all-in weight of 90g more than the lightweight helmet I’ve been using for most of the past two years. However, that extra 3 ounces is not that noticeable, and in the grand scheme of things is a miniscule addition to the total bike-plus-rider weight. And it’s partially offset by excising the weight of the HR chest strap.
The box includes a bit of extra padding, a quick start guide and a micro USB cable for charging. Yes, you already charge your bike computer, and possibly your lights, so why not your helmet!
Setup and Pairing is a Snap
To charge the lithium-ion battery, you simply plug the cord into the small port that rests under a rubber cover on the transmitter at the rear of the helmet, and the other end into your computer or wall outlet if you have a transformer (not included).
Once charged, you turn on the unit by pushing the small button on the underside. A chirp and a slow on-and-off blue light tell you the helmet is on and operational. Then you can pair it with whatever device you’d like using the pairing protocol of the receiving device.
In my case, that was the Cyclemeter app on my iPhone, via Bluetooth 4.0. It paired quickly and easily. Once paired, it stays paired, so that the next time you put on the helmet for a ride and turn on your device, you’re good to go.
No More Strap: Yippee!
My favorite aspect of this device – and, really, any new technology that obviates the need for an existing piece of equipment – is that I no longer have to mess with that confounding chest strap when I’m suiting up for a ride, and undressing afterward.
Even after wearing the strap for years, I still sometimes forget to put the darn thing on, slipping my bib straps over my shoulders and zipping up the jersey before realizing it. Which, of course, requires half undressing again to strap it on. It requires a separate battery to stay on top of, and it can be binding. Oh, yeah, I’ve had straps break in the past, too. And, finally, there’s the required wipe-down after each and every ride. In short, I’ve always hated messing with the strap – and I’m quite pleased to move beyond it!
Getting Ready for a Ride Now
Now, getting ready for a ride means simply kitting up, putting on the helmet, and then pushing the “on” button. The helmet automatically links to the devices you’ve already paired it to, so you can simply hit the road.
When you turn on the helmet, that chirp mentioned previously, along with a slowly flashing blue light, indicate it’s operational. And the 17-hour battery life means a recharge is needed only once a week or week-and-a-half, depending on how much you ride.
To conserve battery life, the helmet automatically shuts off after 10 minutes if you forget to turn it off after a ride. A beep tells you that the helmet is not as forgetful as you are and has shut itself off!
New Model Pairs with All Devices
Until recently, you had to choose either a Bluetooth 4.0 or ANT+ helmet, but LifeBEAM has replaced those with one model that uses both communications protocol, so you can link simultaneously to, say, your Garmin computer, and your Strava app on your phone. The new model is now available.
I tested the older Bluetooth-only model, before the new model had reached the market. On a few rides, for the sake of comparison, I wore my Garmin HR strap and the LifeBEAM helmet on the same rides. I found that the helmet’s readings matched the strap’s nearly exactly, with the average and max HR numbers being spot on the same.
The resulting graphs from each device showed very slight variances in spots, but that’s to be expected based on transmitter and receiver technology, etc. In short, there was no real difference in the functionality between the two.
The Genesis helmet is comfortable and was easy to get dialed in when it came to sizing the straps and adjusting the fit. It features a simple Rollsys™ retention system, with a small dial at the top, rear of the helmet that is turned to tighten or loosen the entire fit “basket” that circles your head. The 19 vent openings allow ample airflow, and the optical sensor is integrated into a rubberized headband up front that is designed to force sweat to roll off toward either side.
I tested the helmet in the middle of an Atlanta summer, including several heat-soaked days with humidity in the upper-90s-percent range. That’s like riding through a hot, wet blanket. Pouring sweat is inevitable, and the helmet handled the deluge just fine, thanks. (Note: I’ve worn a headband every time I’ve worn the helmet. You just need to push the band up a bit on your forehead to leave room for the sensor to contact your skin.)
Everything worked well and pointed up the fact that the technology is truly seamlessly integrated into the helmet. No one I rode with during the several weeks of testing even knew my helmet was anything more than just a helmet.
The Final Analysis
I’ve stashed my HR strap in the closet and hope never to use it again. (I’m getting myself one of the new LifeBEAM models that connects to Bluetooth 4.0 and ANT+ devices simultaneously. The helmet is $50 cheaper on the company website, www.life-beam.com, than it is on the Lazer website.) Why bother with an extraneous piece of equipment to do something that can be accomplished in the one piece of equipment you’re never going to leave home without?
And if you should ever suffer a crash wearing the LifeBEAM helmet, the company works with Lazer to follow Lazer’s crash-replacement policy.
John Marsh is the editor and publisher of RBR Newsletter and RoadBikeRider.com. A rider of “less than podium” talent, he sees himself as RBR’s Ringmaster, guiding the real talent (RBR’s great coaches, contributors and authors) in bringing our readers consistently useful, informative, entertaining info that helps make them better road cyclists. That’s what we’re all about here—always have been, always will be. Click to read John’s full bio.