Heads up display makes skiing way cooler than you thought

Smart googles act as display for text, phone, Web on the mountain

It's easy to predict that technology will produce some really cool things in the future and actually believe them. The complete lack of warp drive, personal replicators or personal hovercraft could embitter those of us who are constantly optimistic about the gap between miraculous potential and mundane reality.

Every once in a while something comes along that is so cool it revives my faith that we're on the bus for the World of the Future, rather than the Cyberpunk Dystopia.

Since fall, Vancouver-based Recon Instruments has been selling ski goggles with GPS and a heads-up display that tells you your speed, time, altitude, distance travelled and location on the mountain, all without taking your eyes off the trail or the tree that's rushing toward you way faster than a tree should be able to move.

The display comes from a pair of micro-LCDs that shine directly into the user's retina, using less power and obstructing the view of the killer tree to less of a degree than other HUD designs might if they were squeezed into such a small space.

There are plenty of heads-up displays for cars, with night vision, GPS and other data, and a few for motorcycles or other smaller situations. Even in those applications they're still rare because of the cost and demand for battery power.

Recon's first version costs between $400 and $430, depending on your choice of lenses.

It comes with a rechargeable lithium battery the company said will last about eight hours at room temperature (rare while skiing), or six hours at 14 Fahrenheit. They're good for 300 to 500 complete cycles, recharge with a USB connection and have to be replaced at the factory because "they're buried pretty deeply in there."

That's inconvenient but, for a google, pretty impressive.

The GPS doesn't display trail maps, but Recon is working on downloadable software to allow that.

The next version, which should ship sometime in 2011 and cost closer to $500, will connect to smartphones using WiFi so "music playlists, caller ID and text messages will be viewable hands-free, direct-to-eye on the hill," according to Recon.

It will support Bluetooth so the goggles can be a heads-up, hands-free viewfinder for the wireless cameras -- presumably the very small, record-my-disastrous-crash-for-YouTube cams worn by XtrEMe boarders and mountain bikers until they're airlifted off the mountain.

Most potentially exciting and disastrous, the goggles will run on Google's Android OS and Recon will release an API so skiers can download Android apps for any kind of communication or GPS-enabled stuff.

Recon predicted the goggles and apps would let you do things like track buddies on the mountain and take calls or read texts without being distracted during the approach of a killer tree.

I'm guessing it won't be too long before app developers turn the HUD interface into a game UI so the augmented real world looks more like a game-ish virtual one.

Why ski down a boring old real hill when you can view a 3-D game interface and score extra points on your runs by hitting moguls, taking tricky routes and outrunning killer shrubbery.

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

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