Third Eye Blind? Augmented Reality Sunglasses Are Here

January 21, 2014
courtesy of Recon InstrumentsThe Recon Jet is one of several heads-up display products heading to the market.

You have likely heard of Google Glass, the futuristic, Internet-connected eyewear created by the search engine giant. Thing is, that’s just the highest profile example of a technology soon to appear in the world of outdoor recreation.

This spring, Recon Instruments is releasing the Recon Jet, a pair of augmented reality sunglasses that displays real-time data in a full-color heads-up display, including speed, distance traveled, elevation, and more. The information appears in a small screen located in the lower right-hand field of view; glancing at it makes the data appear to float in front of you, equivalent to staring at a 30-inch widescreen television 7 feet away. With an integrated video camera and microphone, plus the ability to sync with your smartphone and other Bluetooth-enabled devices, it’s like wearing a GPS unit, helmet cam, heart rate monitor, and altimeter on your face.

Targeted at cyclists, runners, and other heart-pumping athletes, the Jet is an early precursor of an all-but-inevitable trend. And, like any emerging technology, it comes flush with promise and potential—and serious potential drawbacks.

Battery life is limited, with a full charge only providing four to six hours of power. Fragility is a concern; you probably don’t want to drop a pair onto hard asphalt. Cost is an issue (the Jet retails for $599). Yet perhaps more significantly, there are uncertainties about whether such a heads-up display will have negative effects on the wearer’s ability to navigate while moving.

“Some of the most important visual information for perceiving self-motion comes from the periphery,” says Paul MacNeilage, a virtual reality researcher at the German Center for Vertigo in Munich’s University Hospital. “In particular, if you’re walking or running, the lower visual field is extremely important. If something gets in the way of seeing the ground a short distance ahead, it could interfere with your depth perception and potentially make it more difficult to determine where to correctly place your next step.”

These concerns are less likely for cyclists, however. “If you’re riding a bike, then you’re looking farther ahead, so it is likely to be much less of a problem,” MacNeilage continues. But the fact is that nobody really knows for certain how the visual placement of a heads-up display—in the upper versus lower field of view, for example—affects a wearer’s ability to perceive the world. “More research is needed on that particular question,” MacNeilage notes.

The upsides of this technology? Cyclists and runners will no longer have to look down at a handlebar-mounted bike computer or training watch as they exercise. They can adjust their exertion levels quickly in response to instantly available information. The Jet works in all weather conditions, can be operated with gloves on, and is remarkably lightweight (2.1 ounces, including heads-up display and battery). And over time, its capabilities will steadily expand as developers create more and more apps for this new form of interface.

In terms of the potential distraction factor of such technology, MacNeilage is less concerned. “It’s analogous to all the instruments you have in a car,” he explains. “How much do all the displays in your dashboard distract from your ability to drive? I don’t see heads-up displays being too different in terms of attentional load.”


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Matt Heid

Equipped blogger Matt Heid is AMC's gear guru: He loves gear and he loves using it in the field. While researching several guidebooks, including AMC's Best Backpacking in New England, he has hiked thousands of miles across New England, California, and Alaska, among other wilderness destinations. He also cycles, climbs, and surfs.