The worlds of tech and extreme sports don’t just meet at product launches when companies are trying to look “cool”. A lot of the technology we use every day made its way to us from the researchers via a period of testing and refinement as specialist tech for use at the extremes, either in the military or in adventure sports. This means that, if you want to get an idea of the types of tech we might be seeing on the high streets in the next few years, a good place to look is in the ski lodges and extreme sports stores.
Tech from the Extremes
If we look at current developments in technology in the extreme sports world, we can see how some of the tech that is still in the early adoption phase is moving towards the wider market. According to IgluSki, the main areas of tech development for winter sports are currently in safety and location based GPS tech, along with a growing interest in making skiing more sustainable. It is hardly surprising that a sport which is so finely attuned to the weather should be at the forefront of sustainability designed to counter climate change, but it is interesting to note that the manner in which this is being done is very much on the high-tech end, with ski lodges investing in green energy and energy efficient home building automation. Safety is another area of technology that is naturally of interest in extreme sports, and the developments there go far beyond the helmets and padding that have become a ubiquitous sight on the slopes in recent years. The personal airbags that have already saved skier’s lives during avalanches could lead to improvements in road safety, particularly for cyclists and motorbike riders, or even help to reduce fall-related injuries in the elderly, once the technology is refined.
The most interesting way in which skiing and extreme sports tech seems to be anticipating current trends in the market is in the battle between Google Glass style heads up displays and smartwatches. Wearable tech has always been snapped up by extreme sportspeople, with cameras like the GoPro, and the footage of ski jumps and skydives it has shot, appearing everywhere. However, skiers have been waiting for a device that gives them more than a camera, and the creation of heads up displays and smartwatches seems particularly geared to their needs. As more companies start to develop these types of displays, as well as watches and other wearable tech, they are likely to battle it out on the ski slopes before they have much of an effect on the high streets.
Heads Up Goggles
Two of the main contenders for heads up display market on the ski slopes are the Oakley Airwave and the Smith Optics I/O Recon, both of which are based on the display technology developed by Canadian firm Recon Instruments. Ski goggles seem to be the perfect setting for the Recon display, which fits snugly and unobtrusively into both models, providing the user with GPS mapping and various streams of data such as speed and distance. The sensors for all of this data are embedded in the goggles themselves, marking a significant achievement in miniaturization. The GPS mapping and smartphone controls will prove useful for anyone out on the slopes, but the ski data is likely to remain an interesting curiosity for most skiers. Even for serious sportspeople, it is only likely to be much use in training for backcountry skiers, who will be able to track their speed and monitor route difficulty. However, the way the heads up and sensor technology has been incorporated into these goggles shows us some of the potential for wearable displays in the future.
The Oakley Airwaves have a streamlined, industrial-style design with Fire Iridium lenses that add to the sci-fi aesthetics. In addition to the GPS and ski data, they can connect to your smartphone to handle texts and calls, and to control your music. The Smith I/O Recons are based on the brand’s popular I/O goggles, and they fit the same swappable lenses that allow users to match their goggles to the light conditions. The heads up screen offers similar features to the Oakley Airwaves, but there is a useful added detail of an on-screen clock at the bottom. Not having to bare your wrist to check your watch while you’re on the slopes is a big advantage, and it is one of the key reasons why heads up displays tend to win out over smartwatches for skiers.
The Recon display is ideally suited to winter sports and it soon feels very natural to have it there in your peripheral vision. However, the technology is not quite at the level that would be acceptable in the wider consumer market. Both the Oakley and Smith goggles suffer from glitches such as connection problems and display errors that are unacceptable for devices that retail for upwards of $400. These price tags mark the fact that this is a technology that is still in its early stages, and is currently only being used by people who are serious about catching on to new tech as soon as it becomes available. Other skiers may be willing to rely on their smartphone for GPS, together with data records such as the Ski Tracks app from Core Coders, which can record much of the same data as the smart goggles, for just 99 cents.
Influence on the Market
The current thinking among many trendspotters is that consumers will pick up smartwatches long before heads up displays begin to catch on, but by watching what is happening in extreme sports, we may be able to base our predictions on real tech use rather than pure speculation. The smartwatches are more consumer-ready, but heads up devices are something that the adventure sports community has been ready to use for a long time. If this community of early adopters foreshadows developments in the wider world, then it may not be long before attitudes to eyewear based technology begin to change, just as attitudes to the idea of the quantified self are now starting to follow the sportspeople’s interest in cataloguing their own skills.