High-tech sports goggles: Vital data, or too much info?

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High-tech sports goggles: Vital data, or too much info?
Oakley, the eyewear company, makes a $600 ski goggle that comes with a warning in the package: Do not operate product while skiing.

It is an admonition that should be taken with a grain of salt, said Chris Petrillo, a product manager at the company. Of course, he said, the digital goggles are meant for skiing and snowboarding.

"Welcome to the world of lawyers and litigation," he said.

But maybe the lawyers are on to something.

Safety advocates say the concept of high-tech displays for goggles - and for other sports eyewear - is information overload run amok, particularly when people are using them at high speeds.

Yet Oakley, based in Foothill Ranch, Calif., is one of a handful of sports eyewear companies betting that thrill seekers and athletes crave the equivalent of a cockpit dashboard while skiing, snowboarding, cycling and running.

The companies are in the vanguard of the next wave of personal technology, called wearable computing, which promises to further shrink the barrier between users and the information they seek. Most notably, Google is expected to introduce soon its computerized glasses, called Google Glass, which will perform many of the same functions as smartphones.

The goggles made by Oakley, and similarly high-tech pairs made by competitors, have a display in the lens that shows changing speed and altitude, and can display incoming text messages.

The goggles are tributes to miniaturization, equipped with global positioning technology and wireless Bluetooth to stream calls and music from phones. They can even be configured to show videos that are being shot in real time from a camera attached to the top of the lens or embedded in it.

The consumer base is small but growing, perhaps several hundred thousand people using various forms of high-tech eyewear, people in the industry say. But they also say this is the future, and some customers swear by them as performance-enhancing gadgets - as long as users are careful.

Harry Puterbaugh, 57, a farmer from Peoria, Ill., and his wife and 13- and 14-year-old daughters, use high-tech goggles made by Zeal Optics of Boulder, Colo., on ski trips to Aspen and surrounding slopes in Colorado. Puterbaugh likes being able to track how many runs and vertical feet he has skied, measures that he says help him push himself.

He has another pair of goggles, one with a built-in camera that lets him take videos of his action, or his daughters, as they tear down the mountain. A little image in the corner of his eye allows him to see what is being captured, but he said he learned quickly to ignore the image.

His daughters have learned to be cautious too.

"When my girls first started using them, they would get in trouble because they were watching their speed and not paying attention to what they were doing," he said. "They would fall, but you only do that once before you realize it's not a good thing to do."

Besides, he said of the little screen, "once you get used to it, you can pick it up without having to take focus off the mountain itself."

Therein lies the rub. Safety advocates say it is not possible, as seductive as it might sound, to take in simultaneously two streams of information: the real-life action, and the virtual performance data.

"You're effectively skiing blind; you're going to miss a mogul or hit somebody," said David Strayer, a neuroscientist at the University of Utah, in Salt Lake City, who for more than two decades has studied the science of attention and distraction. Even the briefest glance at the information takes over a skier's field of vision and focus, he said.

It is not only makers of ski goggles who are getting into the high-tech eyewear act. Other companies are producing or developing such specs for cyclists or runners, giving them so-called heads-up displays.

Want to know your heart rate or mile time? Just glance inside the lens, sparing the trouble of looking down at a watch or phone app.

To the companies, the technology is an outgrowth of the demand for instant performance data and feedback; it is mobile computing for the fleet-of-foot, never a millisecond lost.

The tension between demand for information and safety has played out in other arenas, notably cars, as dashboards have become more computerized, delivering navigation and entertainment information but with increasing complexity.

"Technology is opening up new dimensions in vision," said Andrew Karp, the lens and technology editor for the Jobson Optical Group, a publisher of journals for the eyewear industry. High-tech lenses "are giving images, data, more information, even sensory input about the things we're seeing," Karp said. "This trend is going to accelerate."

Underscoring the trend, a first-of-its-kind booth dedicated to "cutting-edge eyewear technologies" was at the International Vision Expo, a trade conference last month in New York.

Among the featured companies were Pivothead, which makes $299 sunglasses that have a high-definition camera; Zeal Optics, which said it had seen strong demand for its goggles with an embedded video camera; and 4iiii, a Canadian company that makes sunglass attachments for athletes.

"Google is more mainstream, but we're going after cycling and running," said Kip Fyfe, the chief executive of 4iiii, which is based near Calgary. The technology looks a bit like a telephone headset, but it clips to the side of any pair of glasses, with a narrow boom arm that extends beneath the right lens.

The arm has seven LED lights visible in the bottom of the lens. The lights change as a wearer's performance changes, providing feedback about heart rate, cadence and speed.

If the technology sounds complex. Fyfe said it was designed to make the athlete's life simpler and safer. Rather than requiring the athlete to look at a watch or phone, the performance data is in the field of vision.

The same is true on the mountain, said Colin Baden, Oakley's chief executive. "Bringing information to the user's eye is a really valuable tool, especially when you think sports performance," he said.

The goggles made by Oakley and others are based on a technology from Recon Instruments, of Vancouver, British Columbia, which has developed a 3-D version.

Oakley, and John Sanchez, president of Zeal Optics, said they knew of no accidents.

"Sure, somebody could stare at this long enough to go into a tree," Baden said. "We don't encourage it."

© 2013, The New York Times News Service


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