Connected Eyewear's Sporting Chance
In 2013, Google invited a select group of developers, called Glass Explorers, to buy its groundbreaking connected headwear for $1,500 a pop and set it loose on the world. These chosen few helped introduce a heads-up, always-on, data-rich vision of the future (and along the way invited some envy, ridicule, and controversy over privacy rights). Then in January, Google shuttered the Explorer program and moved the Glass staff under the purview of Nest founder and CEO Tony Fadell, who promised to integrate the lessons learned into yet-to-be-unveiled products.
Dan Eisenhardt, CEO and cofounder of Recon Instruments, a Vancouver, British Columbia-based company specializing in athletic smart glasses and heads-up display (HUD) technology, and his team had been watching Glass closely. "The benefits of wearing it in everyday life could not outweigh the costs of wearing it," says Eisenhardt. "We knew that something you put on your face has to make you look better, not worse, in the context." Recon challenged the notion that the masses would need to wear a computer on their faces. Instead, it took a targeted approach with Jet, the first pair of smart glasses designed for sports. Jet takes all of the data your physical activity generates and translates them into intelligent, actionable metrics that inform your real-time decisions. And the data show up right before your eyes, much like Google's eyewear.
Recon's angle is that for a specific group of die-hards, smart glasses that display relevant data are especially useful. Take weather: For a snowboarder, expected snowfall can make or break a run; for a cyclist, wind speed can alter a planned route; for runners, rain can hamper endurance. Athletes are especially hungry for body metrics, too—calories burned, heart rate, and more. Plus, in the athletic crowd, standout headwear makes a different statement. "It almost makes you cooler, right?" Eisenhardt says. "It shows that you care about data. It's not like putting Glass on in public; it's actually the opposite and you're protected by the context. And that's why cycling, for example, makes so much sense." Sports and any other outdoor activity are more likely to benefit from access to metrics, especially in competitive contexts.
This is why Recon Jet is launching for Strava, a platform athletes join to share metrics and motivate one another, after securing an API partnership with the company. The functionality would be seamless. Basically any data collected from Jet will automatically sync to a Strava user's account. The glasses' form factor becomes not just a sports accessory but a necessary piece of equipment that enhances athletic performance. "For running, it's a huge transformational shift away from not knowing at all to knowing everything you're doing," Eisenhardt says. Runners were previously in the dark about their activities, tracking their speeds, distances, and routes on apps that had to be accessed on a handheld smartphone. But when you're running or biking, looking down—even if just for a split second—at your hand or maybe your wrist is not a natural action. Jet is the happy medium. It enables runners to access all of those data without ever averting their eyes from the journey ahead.
Shipping this spring, at $699 apiece, the data provided by Recon Jet can be conveniently retrieved in situations where your hands are otherwise preoccupied. Based on HUD technology, Jet projects data for cyclists, runners, and any number of other outdoor sports athletes and enthusiasts, in a seamless, easy-to-consume format just below the user's right eye. The device offers a streamlined way to analyze and transmit data in a manner that's relevant and meaningful to users.
For running, it's a huge transformational shift away from not knowing at all to knowing everything you're doing, Eisenhardt says.
Incorporated in 2008, Recon developed HUD technology for winter sports. The company originally launched Jet technology as a HUD device that fits inside of goggles worn by skiers and snowboarders. Even as it primarily homed in on the software, Recon knew that eyewear would be a tricky market to enter. Before Google dominated headlines for Glass, brands such as Oakley and Smith Optics had already perfected the form factor for goggles used in snow sports. Recon partnered with both companies to deliver their smart goggle technology. "We've always focused on the technology, making the platform, the hardware and the software, and any mobile apps that talk to the hardware," Eisenhardt says. "And then we've partnered for the eyewear." While the technology and form factor were suitable for snow, Recon quickly realized the restrictions of expanding into other markets. "I've always had the vision of delivering this hands-free instant experience to people," says Eisenhardt, "whether it's sports or basically any activity where you need information and you don't have time to stop and pull out a handheld device. So it's pretty broad."
After launching the first HUD platform for skiers and snowboarders in 2010, and selling more than 65,000 units, the company was ready to pivot into nonseasonal sports, this time under its own name and its own terms. To make this happen, it would need a manufacturing partner to help get the product into as many hands—or onto as many faces—as possible. "We had a great, well-functioning prototype for years," Eisenhardt says. "But as soon as we went into the design-for-manufacturing process, we realized that we had some shortcomings that meant we could not mass-produce this."
Flex, a global supply-chain and manufacturing company, was familiar with Recon. After meeting with Mike Dennison, president of the Consumer Technologies Group at Flex, at CES 2014, the time was right for Recon to partner with the company. Dennison says headwear, particularly optics and integrating data into line-of-sight technologies, is a hotbed of innovation. "The leading companies are finding a common denominator, combining hardware and software in a solution that creates a consumer experience that was untenable and unthinkable before," he says.
The benefits of wearing it in everyday life could not outweigh the costs of wearing it. We knew that something you put on your face has to make you look better, not worse, in the context.
An existing relationship with Recon's software partner, Synapse Design, proved mutually beneficial in identifying key development needs to take the prototype and mass-produce it. Flex had the speed and capability necessary to take Recon's design file, iterate on it, and land on a scalable product in the shortest amount of time. "Talking to Mike and the team, it was almost like they were focusing solely on picking winners in this space and other spaces," Eisenhardt says. "They were okay with maybe it's going to take time to get us where we need to be, but they were willing to come in and give us good terms, support us, help us get to that stage where we can sell millions. And they were set up to support us." The partnership paid off. Jet is launching with running and cycling applications, but the use cases for the product are already growing. The company relies on its open platform—or open API—to enable app developers to take the already-modular design and customize it for whatever activity they'd like. Think of it as an app store for smart glasses. Beyond cycling and running, other APl-born examples of Jet's flexibility include golf, sailing, small-plane aviation, paragliding, BASE-jumping, and even hunting. In one recent example, a rifle company wanted to use Jet to shoot around corners. All of these, though, are just glimpses at the contextual rules of placing a smart, connected, intelligent device on your face.
I've always had the vision of delivering this hands-free instant experience to people, whether it's sports or basically any activity where you need information and you don't have time to stop and pull out a handheld device.
Once Jet officially hits the market this spring, many people will be watching closely. If context is, in fact, the solution to what's socially acceptable from a tech perspective, Recon may have the right forecast for the future. Because when Jet is paired with other smart devices, or connected to the right sensors to create synchronicity throughout teams, the whole notion of the power of the Internet of Things starts to make much more sense. "I think it's important to introduce the whole idea of a society in which each node in that society is self-aware in real time," Eisenhardt says. "We're just starting to exploit even the Internet. Because the Internet itself has just become a switchboard, but it's not meaningful if people are not connected to people."