Esther Kang

Former Manhattan Beach local, engineer hacks cycling industry with futuristic LED turn-signal gloves

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Zackees Turn Signal Gloves founder Zack Vorhies. Courtesy of Vorhies

Zackees Turn Signal Gloves founder Zack Vorhies. Courtesy of Vorhies

A former Google engineer is about to take the cycling industry by storm.

Zach Vorhies, a 33-year-old former Manhattan Beach local, believes his San Francisco-based team has invented the best thing in cycling since the helmet–an invention he was surprised no corporation has yet produced.

They’re called Zackees Turn Signal Gloves, sleek and intuitive cycling gloves that use LED lights to signal left or right with the light brush of a finger.

Zackees Turn Signal Gloves are designed so cyclists can can signal without having to take your hands off of the handle bars. Courtesy of Vorhies

Zackees Turn Signal Gloves are designed so cyclists can can signal without having to take your hands off of the handle bars. Courtesy of Vorhies

This past August, Vorhies left his six-figure income job as a senior software engineer for Google to pursue this venture full-time. He’s all in.

“The user response for this has been crazy,” Vorhies said. Last month, he and his co-founder Murat Ozkan, a roboticist from Nuvation, reached their Kickstarter campaign goal of $35,000 in just 12 days. Now with just a few days remaining, some 550 supporters have contributed more than $52,000.

Vorhies’ foray into LED art began in 2008 with a trip to Burning Man, a weeklong annual arts event in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. There, he was taken aback by what he saw: engineers like himself making art.

“I never thought of myself as an artist, but I went there and saw all these other engineers doing engineer art,” Vorhies said. “They’re taking computers and using them to do crazy art sculptures. You go, how did this come to be? For me it was a giant puzzle, and when I came back, I felt changed. And I felt inspired.”

He returned to San Francisco with a newfound fascination with LEDs and electronic art. That following weekend, he and Wheylan Dean-Ford, a fashion designer friend from New York, created the Hydro-Pak–an LED-CamelBak for Vorhies to sport on his motorcycle. Soon after, he wore it to a fashion show in San Francisco and caught the attention of the event organizer.

“He was like, ‘Wow, where did you get this?’ Asking me all these questions,” he recalled. “I said I made it, and he was like, ‘Can you make more?'”

A door into the fashion industry flung open for Vorhies then, with the organizer promising to feature his work on the next runway. Recognizing the significance of this opportunity, he invited back Dean-Ford to his place in San Francisco, and the two set out to design the “coolest outfit anyone has ever seen.” They embarked on a month-long hackathon at Vorhies’ house, with Dean-Ford creating designs and Vorhies manning the engineering specs.

What came to fruition was a five-piece electronic leather outfit, complete with a Hydro-Pak, a sound-reactive LED vest, a turn-signal shoulder piece for rollerbladers, a sound-reactive backpack specially designed with a Bose wireless sound system and the first prototype of Zackees Turn Signal Gloves. The outfit made its debut on a San Francisco runway last April, and the response was overwhelming.

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“Everybody was coming up and saying bicyclers need these gloves,” Vorhies said. “They were saying, if you’re not gonna make this, then I will. Everything else from the outfit was artistic, but the signal gloves were artistic and functional, more than anything else.”

Since the debut, the gloves have endured four more prototypes. He connected with a locally-based artist to redesign the glove and brought onboard co-founder Ozkan, a neighbor and hardware engineer. What was merely for show is now a legitimate cycling glove, complete with leather palms, an absorbent towel around the thumb, retro-reflective trim and breathable spandex.

“We treated it like a regular cycling glove, except it’s got lights in it,” Vorhies said. “And all of a sudden, the electronics and aesthetics came together and it was better than any glove that exists. There’s nothing comparable in the market.”

The glove is washable, with turn signal electronics protected with waterproof coating, and the LED batteries (chargeable via USB) last three to six months after daily active use with an ambient light-sensor that controls illumination to preserve power. And of course, the selling point is the unique-patented, nickel-plated metal contact switch between the thumb and index finger that ignites the signals.

“People kept saying how they’ve been looking for a glove like this for a really long time,” he said. “They were really fanatical about me making them a glove. That was just more validation that I should just keep going.”

For about four months, Vorhies continued his day job at Google while poring over the glove by night. Around August, it became obvious where his heart lay.

“Honestly when my work started to suffer at Google, that’s when I was like, I’m sleep deprived, I’m doing this Google thing during the day and I come home and work on this other thing,” he said. “I can’t do both these things. Things were just going too slowly … we had to strike while we had momentum.”

And so they did. With the venture now fully funded thanks to supporters on Kickstarter, Vorhies and his team expect the gloves to hit online stores by June this year. Turn signal helmets that integrate with the gloves could be next.

“We know a lot of people that are excited about this product,” he said. “That’s what makes it really easy to find talent–having a really amazing product that people wanna work on. And here we are.”

Zackees Turn Signal Gloves, $69, are available for preorder on Kickstarter until Wednesday, Jan. 8.

 

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