Agency Orphans: Gavia, the bike-mounted air monitor from Critical Mass

How the Omnicom shop turned a passion for cycling into a mobile toxin detector that nobody's buying (yet)


It’s a sad truth of creative life that not every good idea gets sold. But sometimes, those darlings are too good to delete, and they linger, alone and nearly forgotten, waiting in the hopes that someday, some client will take them home. This is the first article in a new series highlighting work that didn’t quite make it out the door but still deserves its time in the sun.

Critical Mass has a penchant for featuring big builds in its pitches. For example, to demonstrate a virtual reality retail concept, the Omnicom shop once transformed a section of its workspace into an exact replica of a client’s store.

But sometimes the agency will undertake such a project with no client in site. This summer, a group of Critical Mass employees who bike to work "got talking about what it’s like to ride in New York City," said Conor Brady, Critical Mass chief creative officer. They offered each other tips for alternate routes, with an eye toward avoiding paths that would expose them to exhaust and other pollution.

What they soon realized was that bike routes aren’t chosen with health in mind. When New York creates new lanes, for example, it usually does so along the most popular and most direct routes between population centers — even though that practice often places cyclists right next to major thoroughfares. That not only exposes riders to more toxins but exacerbates the rivalry between bikers and drivers, presenting the potential for more accidents.

With the problem in mind, a group of employees began spending time in The Shed, an in-house workspace equipped with dev kits for small-scale tinkering with tech ideas. By fall, they had developed a lightweight, bike-mounted atmospheric monitor that could help them map the presence of toxins across the city. They named it Gavia, after the famously beautiful but tough-to-travel road in the Italian Alps.

If Gavia could reliably map the air quality along different bike routes, perhaps it could help change the way bike routes are chosen, they thought.

"Our feeling was that if we could get a compelling visualization and a large data set, we could essentially map the best ways to commute by bike in our chosen cities," Brady said. "And maybe more importantly, where not to commute at certain times based on the air quality.

"Essentially, the topography of the data would show that ‘valleys’ created by low readings would be the healthiest routes, and the ‘peaks,’ — while they might be the most direct — could actually be the worst places for you to ride," he added.

The unit was built on an Arduino Pro Mini (a $9.95 open-source microcontroller) "because of its simplicity and low power use," said Darren Wood, art director at Critical Mass. The team then "added a Bluetooth LE connection that would allow it to pair with a smartphone, and integrated an array of sensors to collect data on air quality, temperature and humidity." Simple custom-built Android and iPhone apps paired the data with GPS coordinates and time of day.

"We made the unit small enough to get on a bike without it being cumbersome, Brady said. "The monitor was essentially the Arduino tech inside a plastic junction box bought from Home Depot. As you can see, we didn’t focus on aesthetics at all — our focus was to get it on a bike as quickly as possible and see what type of data we could collect."

Employees in Calgary took Gavia for a spin first, then shipped the test kits to New York for another round. An attached LED let riders know what level of pollution they were inhaling without having to take their eyes off the road. As different employees took different routes to work, Gavia sent the data through the smartphone apps to servers for processing, creating a visual representation of the air quality along different paths throughout the city.

But even armed with all this data, Gavia has been tough to move. A bike rental company Critical Mass thought would be perfect for the project hasn’t bitten. And a pitch to the City of New York will require a great deal more data.

So the tinkering continues. Gavia 2.0 will include USB charging rather than a bulky 9-volt battery, as well as an on/off switch and rainproofing. And there are plans to 3D-print a custom attachment for even more ergonomic efficiency. In the meantime, Gavia and all its data sit on servers, waiting to be used by more than just a few enthusiastic agency employees.