Brian Higgins is blind and has been tooling around on a fancy titanium bike equipped with special sensors that beep to tell him to watch out for a tree or post.
The 61-year-old hobbyist inventor walked outside last week to discover a thief had broken into his Los Altos, Calif., garage. The padlock had been broken. His $3,000 Litespeed titanium bicycle was nowhere to be found.
"My heart just went up into my throat," Higgins said. "It was just devastating."
He called police, who are now helping him track down not only the wheels, but part of his life’s work.
Higgins, whose day job is teaching blind veterans about technology, has always dabbled around as an amateur inventor. When he moved from Maine to Silicon Valley a decade ago, he joined the HomeBrew Robotics Club. It's a computer hobbyist group where members meet at the Google campus, and whose alumni include Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.
Higgins has been interested in inventing a way for blind people to get around on a bike – and possibly other modes of transportation – ever since he was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa 20 years ago, leaving him about 98 percent blind.
“We were trying to make a difference,” Higgins said.
The “we” is his “Clearpath Navigation Team” that he named at the robotics club. He and others have been trying to perfect the strategy for using commercially bought ultrasonic sensors attached to his bike, which can help him and other blind people get from point A to point B without striking obstacles.
He compared the technology he’s using to Google’s driverless car and Neato robot vacuums that use precision laser mapping to clean floors and carpets. He’s applied for a grant to help him fund his research, but so far, he said he was turned down when he applied for Google funding. He said no one has a patent on what he and his team are working on – a way to help blind people navigate on bikes.
But now, the brakes have been put on that research. Higgins is hopeful his bike will be returned.
“I’m soul searching,” he said. “I have to decide what I want to do from here. Do I get a new bike? This was not just my vehicle. This was my research."
IF YOU'RE INTERESTED: To learn more about Higgins’ work, click on his website, Intellisight.org. If you have information about the bicycle, call Los Altos police at 650-947-2770.
U.S. & World
NBC Bay Area's George Kiriyama contributed to this report.