Hands on with the Shimano’s Di2 ANT+ SCIO shifting bike computer

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Well, actually, my title is probably a bit misleading.  Thus, I should probably be more honest in my titles in the future.

See, it isn’t actually ANT+, but rather private-ANT.  Second, it doesn’t actually control your Di2 system – rather, it just reads the information.  Oh, and third, it doesn’t actually really record said information either, it just displays it.

Which, those three things pretty much takes it from being interesting to likely ending up in the has-been pile.  Or perhaps it’s that I tried multiple times throughout the day to get someone, anyone at all really, to explain the device in more depth to me.  I’m confident that nobody in the sprawling Shimano estate-like booth knew anything about it, nor really cared about it.  I’ve never seen a more indifferent group of folks about one of their own products than I saw on multiple attempts over two days to get information about it.  They’d likely have expressed more interest in watching paint dry than talking about the unit.  At any rate, here’s how it works as described to me with as much detail as they seemed to understand about it, interpolated with a lot of poking around on my own.

First up there’s a small ANT wireless transmitter component that goes under the cap of the right shifter:

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From there the transmitter component sends the data via private-ANT to the SCIO head unit, which itself is actually ANT+ capable.  The SCIO head unit is able to connect to ANT+ speed/cadence sensors, heart rate straps and power meters.

The private-ANT implementation means that while data is using ANT as a protocol, it’s not available to other companies to add to head units.  I’ll dive into the importance of that in a moment.

The unit can display metrics from the aforementioned ANT+ sensors such as speed/cadence/distance/HR, however ultimately you’re really looking to see your current Di2 gearing data.  The middle of the display shows battery percentage of the Di2 system while the bottom of the display shows your current gearing.  The L/R at the bottom reflect which side of the handlebars and correspond to the chainring/cassette states which are listed numerically above the buttons.

If you compare the next two photos, you can see the difference after I’ve shifted using the right (rear) shifters:

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Note how the “11” changes to “3” as I’ve shifted a few gears.  Also note that my shifting is still completed via the normal Di2 buttons.  The buttons you see here on the bike computer are purely for changing the displayed metrics.  They DO NOT shift for you.

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The unit comes in two models, one at $129US without a barometric altimeter, and a second unit at an unknown higher price point with a barometric altimeter.  Neither unit records data for download, it’s only there for display.

With that overview of the device complete, let’s dive into a few thoughts.

Why on earth use private-ANT for this and then pump it to a useless less-refined device?  Instead of going with ANT+ and allowing this data to be consumed by devices such as a Garmin Edge computer or similar, they went with a private implementation that leaves no data on the table for anyone to record.  Given the cost of Di2 and the cost of most bikes that Di2 goes onto, they could quite frankly still have charged $129US without the head unit but instead that tiny little adapter to transmit ANT+ data regarding gear states to compatible head units.

Which brings me to the next question: Why doesn’t it record this data?  After all, what value could there possibly be in this setup without the recording of the data?  Perhaps I’ve never had the problem where I don’t know what gear I’m in (roughly) and needed to look down at my head unit to see that information.  Thus I see almost-zero value in displaying this information, but I see huge potential value in recording it and starting to do analytics on it.  Meshed with power meter data or perhaps even cadence data you could do some pretty interesting things around analysis of when a rider might be improperly geared grinding along at 70RPM instead of shifting.  More capable head units could perhaps even notify you of your inability to remember to shift.  Analytics software could over time likely start to figure out optimal gearing combinations for some users.

Which, brings me to my next point.  A number of people I talked to about it across the industry noted how silly it is that you can’t control the shifting from there.  What about the potential to allow a user to set an optimal cadence range (whatever that may be) and have the unit simply shift accordingly to keep you in that cadence?  Of course, like many new technologies there’s lots of potential research in the benefits there to be done – but without even the potential to change gears remotely, starting that research is a non-starter.

Now, some might raise the concern about having ANT+ shifting on your behalf.  No doubt.  But that’s easily resolved by having ANT+ simply encrypt that data, which exists today in single-channel encryption.  And many have been recently talking about doing that for power meter users anyway.  Given that any head unit looking to add functionality would have to issue a firmware update to support it, it’s really irrelevant resource-wise to go with encryption versus not.

Thus, while I think Shimano could have potentially done something really innovative here, ultimately I find it gimmicky and poorly executed at best.  Luckily, resolution is easy: All they have to do is switch it over to open ANT+, court a few head unit vendors (Hint: Start with Garmin, O-Synce and PowerTap), and call it macaroni for v1.

With that, my thoughts are done here.

Welcome to Interbike week! This week during Interbike 2013 I’ll be tweeting from the exhibition show floor quite a bit, as well as posting frequently. Here’s a quick and handy link to all Interbike-related posts.

25 Comments

  1. Matt Underwood

    Seems a bit pointless tbh. I wonder though, how long before someone wires up power data over ANT+ to shifting on Di2 and creates a 'auto-box' for bikes to keep in some ideal torque zone?

    Reply
  2. Matt Underwood

    That'll teach me to stop reading at the top when the product seems dumb! Whoops!

    Reply
  3. Peter Burke

    We'll said!
    Seems useless.
    Are they really taking this to market or is it a prototype?

    Reply
  4. Graham Richter

    This units serves no purpose.

    It's already possible to deduce the current gear from standard sensors. If the cadence, speed, crank length, wheel diameter and gear tooth count are known, then the gear can be calculated. All of these things are already available to most people who have even a basic head unit. All that is needed is software, either head unit firmware or a Garmin Connect enhancement.

    That's a much better idea.

    Reply
  5. Anders Majland

    Well I'm not looking at bikes int the price range where Di2 is available but it is still interesting from a technology point of view. Indoor i've been using a Kettler Exercise Bike for a few years with link to kettlerworldtours.net. One with USB interface and a laptop to control it. Besides running fixed intervals like X watt for Y minutes followed by Z Watt for V minutes i also ride a few video routes and my own gps tracks. I very often choose to run in auto where i just adjust the max. load that i want and then let it change the virtual gearing accordingly. I can easily see that it would also be a nice thing in the real world if the shifting is smooth under load ...

    Reply
  6. Carlton

    It looks like this is not compatible with a TT setup, unless the existing SM-EW90-B 5-Port Junction actually does have ANT broadcast built in already (as mentioned in old Shimano press releases.)

    Can it display power meter data? Perhaps it could be useful as a secondary display when using a Garmin 910xt that is wrist-mounted and hard to read.

    Reply
  7. Charlie Revell

    Id just like the buttons on my DI2 shifters to control my garmin screens so I could flick between menus whilst riding. That and the battery % would be great!

    Reply
  8. It would be really nice if they'd open up the spec so an accessory manufacturer like Wahoo could do BTLE/ANT+ read/write sensors for Di2. It would be great to have it paired with a bit of software that could do automatic shifting based on your preferred cadence and/or power!

    Reply
  9. marc jay

    Remember Flight Deck? Same deal: a technology that Shimano put out there but didn't seem terribly interested in maximizing through third party support - or even really supporting by releasing any decent hardware of their own. But they shipped Flight Deck on shifters for a decade (increasing the price accordingly I'm sure), even though hardly anybody too advantage of it.

    Reply
  10. Mark

    What a missed opportunity! Similar to how the Japanese consumer electronics industry got broadsided by the digital age. An almost exclusive focus on proprietary hardware, while almost completely ignoring the importance of software, compatibility, "ecosystems", user interface, etc., etc ....

    Reply
  11. Mr Nofish

    This unit looks like an updated Flight Deck, basically it does for Di2 what Flight Deck units have been doing for quite some time for mechanical systems: to tell you what gear you're using without having to look at your back wheel. I'm not really surprised the Shimano booth guys weren't interested, I'm not even positive that people actually buy Flight Decks.

    As for after-the-fact data analysis, I think there are SportTracks plugins that figure out the gear in use from speed, cadence and drivetrain specs, although they probably don't try to do anything interesting with that data.

    Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      Yeah, I've toyed around with the Sport Tracks plugins on and off for years. Ultimately though, in order to move it from a niche (a paid/free Sport Tracks plugin) to something more widespread, it's gotta be natively offered in ANT+. That would then allow applications/sites like Strava/TrainingPeaks/Garmin Connect/etc... to see the data and perform analytics on it.

      Reply
  12. Steve

    This is an interesting Di2 project

    link to dailymotion.com

    Reply
  13. Hi,

    They'll have gone with ANT and their own formats because this is the simplest for them. It can take time and effort to standardise message formats. This requires co-ordinating with other companies, via a standards body, which can take time. Further, there may not be sufficient interest from others in standardising something, there may be disagreements on the details, or it may be that it is felt some kind of product deployment is required first in order to get experience and understand exactly what needs to be standardised. All of which may delay the standardisation process and mean a company has to use non-standardised messages if it wants to get a product out of the door.

    Agreeing on a standard is not always trivial. It is need not even be the fault of the company releasing the product that there is no standards-based protocol for the messaging. Finally, sometimes the non-standard messages end up adopted as the standard. Even if it doesn't happen in this case, still nothing stops Shimano releasing documentation on the messages used, so others can implement them.

    Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      Perhaps. But at the end of the day, if you release a useless product is that better than releasing a product a month or two later?

      And, the already in existence ANT+ Controls device profile would have likely worked just fine here, ready to go and used by plenty of other companies.

      Reply
  14. Happy Runner

    You people really aren't seeing the tremendous potential of this product. I have already placed a pre-order and simply can not wait for it to arrive. At least once every two or three rides, I forget what gear I am in. Currently, I have to look down at the cassette, thus risking the possibility of a neck strain. With this unit, I can just look at the display. The only reason I'd cancel my pre-order is to await version 2.0, which will have voice prompts: "You are in the big chainring." Awesome!

    Reply
    • Paul Jakma replied

      Hi Rainmaker,

      Sadly, the ANT+ device profile documentation seems to be restricted access (yuk). However, the 3rd hand information I can find on the controls profile suggests it's aimed at "control of phone call ID, texts, emails, music, etc." (see link to prweb.com). That sounds like there's plenty of scope for it not to be suited to gear changing & reporting, or, even if it is suited, that it might be so general-purpose as to make it over-wrought for gear-changing.

      Hard to say without being able to read the docs. I would, but the ANT consortium are one of those annoying "hide the specs" consortia. There's still plenty of good reasons why it might not have been reasonable for Shimano to go with anything other than their own messages though. :)

      Thanks!

      Paul

      Reply
  15. Jeff S

    I like seeing what gear I'm in from my cockpit rather than having to look back to see. When I'm riding at high effort with a group my attention isn't typically focused on what gear I'm in, though more significant is that I have CRS syndrome. I haven't ponied up for Di2, so I use in-line cable indicators for this info. I do have two Flight Decks I plan to eBay ($1?).

    To get gear info directly with Di2 I expect some electronic interface is necessary. I'm not at all surprised that Shimano isn't sharing their data with others so that the only solution is to use their head unit. Hopefully a third-party vender can legally tap Di2 info and provide it via an open standard sometime soon for those of us that want the info, but not the proprietary dumb box.

    Reply
  16. mtn_rcr

    I can see someone reverse engineering the shifter ANT transmitter and employing ANT+ and possibly even doing the work to engineer/program an 'autoshift' protocol that is customizable. Even if they can't engineer it to fit in the same space, who is preventing someone from hacking the whole thing beyond what we have already seen with the Di2 mountain bike setup!

    Reply
  17. ALex

    One take on it maybe in view of the Di2 Alfine system. If the auto gear selection idea is developed, the major draw back in the normal shifting system is where the chain has to be in motion to swap gear. With the Alfine being planetary, the gear is easier to change when torque is reduced, such as that tricky hair pin bend you've just come out of etc.

    Developing this into either the Dura Ace or Ultegra drive trains looks a bit of a dead end, but applied to either the higher end Di2 Alfine 11 groupset, or the emerging battery assist/hybrid bikes, then maybe the automatic torque matching gear system has a limited future.

    Reply
  18. Richard

    I used a Flight Deck for years until my bike was stolen. When I replaced it I went big bucks and opted for Di2. I was very disappointed to learn that no Flight Deck was available for the system. So why do I venture out to say I liked it in the face of the disparaging remarks ahead of me? The Flight Deck did everything a basic bike computer does plus the most accurate cadence I have ever seen on a bike computer. The cadence was accurate and always there because it didn't rely on a weak signal from a rear sensor that was sometimes there, sometimes not, and frequently inaccurate because of the signal instability. Instead it knew what gear you were in, what speed you were going, your wheel circumference, and calculated your cadence from that information. True, because it was a calculated cadence, it would show a cadence of 150 when you were freewheeling downhill but that was easily disregarded. I don't use heart meters, power meters, or any of that fancy stuff. Instead I relay on speed and cadence Having an always there accurate cadence is a big deal. And I live in San Francisco, ride nothing but hills, mostly in the East Bay. Another way of gauging my fitness is to know which gear I was in when climbing those hills. The Flight Deck always displayed that. information Others may find it easy to glance at the rear cassette to determine their gearing but I have a lot of trouble doing that especially with a 10 speed cluster back there and standing up pedaling hard to get up the danged hill which is exactly when I wanted to know it the most. So, while using ANT and having cross compatibility between different units would be a great thing, I would pay Flight Deck money just to get what I used to have. As near as I can tell, this unit won't do that. Too bad.

    Reply
  19. What baffles me is why create a proprietary wireless protocol, another device to measure and transmit the data wirelessly, and then a computer to match the (possibly-evolving) protocol to display data that's only mildly useful? On most bike setups the computer is going to sit pretty close to the A junction, and they could readily build a computer with an E-Tube port that could plug into a spare port on the (5-port) A junction with a short wire. This could easily display anything that came down the wire - including battery strength - without the needless overhead result in faster battery drain.

    Someone neglected the K.I.S.S. principle IMHO...

    Reply
  20. wkochi

    can't these buttons on top /under the hoods be programmable? to shift?

    Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      Technically they could, if Shimano let them.

      Reply
    • wkochi replied

      its interesting, since the actual button on top can be somewhat removed...and the sprint shifter modified and placed in the same location. a little dremel and rerouting of the wiring, i think you can actually make it work. thx for the quick reply.

      Reply

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