Interview with Tom Fowler about the Recon Jet

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The Recon Jet is a wearable computing device that is attached to a pair of sunglasses and can display a range of real-time data direct to the athlete’s eye.

We spoke with Recon Instruments’ Chief Marketing Officer Tom Fowler about the Recon Jet. This is the full transcript from that interview.

Where did it all begin?

Recon Jet really is the output of everything the company’s been doing since it was first conceived as early as 2006. The company was founded by four UBC [University of British Columbia, Canada] students who were in the graduate program at UBC and were taking an entrepreneurship course that required the construction of a business plan concept and it was with idea of doing heads-up displays, originally for swimming goggles.

Dan Eisenhardt, one of the founders and our CEO, is a former-national-calibre swimmer from Denmark, division 2 All-American here in the States, and he knew from many many hours in the pool, where you’re completely cut off from the world and certainly from any information that might be useful for you to have as a swimmer, that it would be really cool to have in a swimming goggle, all of the performance metrics and physiological metrics that matter to a swimmer.

That was the original motivation. There were various challenges associated with that product: waterproofing, miniaturisation and size of the market and most noticeably, how much swimmers are accustomed to paying for goggles. Swimming goggles are like $15 so obviously we’re talking about something a bit more involved with the heads-up displays.

The company then pivoted from swimming goggles and said “well, what market would be good, where people are accustomed to spending reasonable amounts of money and are very technically-minded?” And skiing and snowboarding was an obvious choice that took about 60 seconds to figure out.

And so the company moved into development for a snow goggle product which was launched in the fall of 2010. That product was called the Transcend and now we’re coming into our fourth season of snow goggle heads-up display products that we’ve enjoyed great success with. We’ve moved over 50,000 of this heads-up display product since the Transcend, they’re sold in Apple stores worldwide, we have some of the most notable eyewear brands partnering with us on the product … So it’s been a big success.

But going back to your original question, the intent has always been to reduce the form factor on the heads-up display to ever-smaller levels, while increasing the computer power, improve the user experience and the functionality and the next logical step after snow goggles was to take all those learnings and to apply it into a sunglass.

That has actually been part of the product roadmap from inception. The company was founded in 2008 — the school project lasted two years then the company was founded in 2008 and shipped the first snow goggle in 2010.

Even back in ‘08 you can go back into our archives and find early sketches and design drawings and concepts for sunglass heads-up displays that look remarkably similar to what we have today. So the idea existed then but the motivation really came out of this quest for miniaturisation and application for a broad cross-section of different athletes and use cases. We’re delighted now that we’re finally able to be on the cusp of realising that vision with Jet.

What are some of the features of the Recon Jet that will be useful to cyclists?

First and foremost it’s important to understand that the Jet is a full-bore computing solution. It’s a 1Ghz dual-core microprocessing unit which means the computing power is equivalent to that of a smartphone that you might carry in your pocket. So it’s a powerful device.

Specifically for cyclists, that computing power also is enabled by ANT+, Bluetooth and WiFi communication protocols. This is important for the cyclist of course because it allows the Jet to communicate directly from any of the sensors that would be used by a cyclist. Heartrate monitors for example, can communicate directly with the Jet, most of them through Bluetooth, power meters commonly use ANT+ and can communicate with the Jet as well. Cadence sensors obviously, speed sensors…

All of the data that a cyclist would care to know — power, speed, heartrate, distance, cadence vertical, time — are visible in the display of the heads-up display. So that’s really quite cool.

The product has as well an on-board GPS system which allows of course accurate navigation, location tracking, verification of speed and distance, vertical … All of these functions are resident in the GPS itself — it’s not dependant in this case on a smartphone.

There’s another feature that’s relevant to the cyclist and that speaks specifically to the battery, which is there on the left side of the Jet. The battery is incredibly easy to swap while you’re out on the ride. We expect that we’ll see three to six hours of battery life out of Jet, depending on how actively you’re using the camera and some other features.

But the battery only weighs 14 grams and we’ll make available spare batteries that the athlete can toss into his jersey pocket and literally with one hand you just go snap and it comes off. Put it in your pocket, grab the other one out. Snap, you haven’t lost any of your data and you’re good for another three to six hours. So it’s quite a wonderful feature for say the Ironman athlete or the longer-distance cyclist for a really full day, we’ve got you covered quite nicely.

Presumably if you’ve got GPS on board and you’re able to read signals from devices that are ANT+ and Bluetooth compatible, you’ll be able to log rides that you’re doing?

The devices is agnostic to activity tracker platforms so whether you are using Strava or Training Peaks or Garmin Connect, we have no barrier to an athlete accessing and uploading the Jet-generated data to any of those services.

We do have our backend called Engage where all that data can be housed and sliced and diced in a similar manner to the other activity tracking services. We’ll make that available to the athlete but we absolutely do not require the athlete to use Engage; it’s merely there for those who would like to use it but absolutely folks can just as seamlessly use the activity tracking, data recording backend that they’ve become comfortable with.

I imagine if I was working at Garmin this is something I’d be pretty worried about — it’s sounds like the Recon Jet is able to do most things Garmin devices (e.g. 510, 810) are able to do?

The fact of the matter is that we have a good working relationship with our friends at Garmin. We have tremendous respect for what Garmin has developed with its technology over the years and certainly their navigation software is best-in-class. So it’s not our intent to try and knock Garmin off the bike by any means. There are a number of things — particularly navigation — that Garmin does better than any product out there and probably, frankly, will do better than the Jet for years to come.

They’ve got armies of people that have been developing their capablity in this way — it would be rather presumptuous of us to assume that we could go and say “you no longer need a Garmin.”

Where we can work together in a wonderful way is to supercharge the Garmin experience and allow the Garmin device to communicate with the Jet itself so the functionality that is resident within a Garmin 805 could be then displayed in the Jet. That’s a supercharged experience obviously for the Jet, and it’s also a supercharged experience for the Garmin.

Both parties are delivering special know-how and a special attribute to the athlete that neither product could necessarily achieve on its own. We look forward to continuing to explore our relationship with Garmin where we both can benefit.

Can you take photo and video with the Jet?

The Jet does have a high definition camera onboard. The idea here is not to be running hours and hours of video, or taking billions of photos — it’s more of a run-and-gun, super-convenient type of camera, in high-def of course.

So you’re riding over the top of Independence Pass in Colorado and in a gran fondo and you want to take a quick snapshot of the sign that shows you were there. Just with a tap on the touchpad on the side of the Jet you can shoot a couple of quick photos, you can take a nice little 10-20 second video and store that, upload it to your laptop or the cloud after the ride and enjoy the moment.

I like to think about the Jet camera the same way I think about a pocket, good-quality point-and-shoot camera whereas something like a GoPro or professional grade camera … a good photographer might have a high quality point-and-shoot in their quiver but they’ll also have a much higher-grade, professional product when they’re going to do serious photography.

Much like with the Garmin it’s not our intent to challenge GoPro or Contour or any of the other truly professional-grade cameras in the market, it’s really more about that point-and-click convenient access to video and stills and embedding that right in the Jet for the athlete to access at the tap of the touchpad on the side of the product.

How easy is it to change between taking photos and taking videos?

It’s very simple. If you want to take a photo you just go tap tap and it will take a photo. If you want to take a video you go tap tap then hold for a second and it starts running. Do that tap tap and hold for another second and it stops.

So you don’t have to load a camera application, you don’t have to be swiping around to find that application in the navigation screens — you simply just have immediate access through a specific tap-and-hold sequence for either photos or videos. You see something you want to take a photo of and boom, the access to that capability is instant and immediate.

When a lot of people think about heads-up displays for cycling they might think that having a screen so close to your eye might be considered a bit distracting, if you’re having to change your focus between something that’s very close to you, and back to the road. How did you get around that problem?

The optical impression you have when you look at the Jet screen is like looking at a 30-inch (75cm) computer screen at a distance of about seven feet (2.1m). Your sensation is not that it’s close to your eye at all — the sensation is that it’s quite a bit further away and that it’s quite a large screen.

It’s hard to really imagine that until you’ve seen it because most of us have never had the experience of having a heads-up display on but it’s remarkable.

Personally I’ve been testing each of the prototypes of Jet that have been cranked out since February. We’ve got some great footage from when my friend and I were riding up in the mountains of British Columbia in February in a blizzard with Jet — it was like -5 degrees and absolutely dumping snow — and we rode up a 1,200-1,300m vertical metre climb into the mountains.

I’ve been testing this for quite a while and it’s remarkable to me how non-distracting it actually is. The screen itself: you’re not actually aware that it exists until you glance down at it. When you’re looking through the lens of the glasses it’s very similar to the experience of looking through the windshield of a car where you don’t have really anything other than the slightest vague awareness of the dashboard, but when you want to get a data about how fast you’re going, what’s my RPM etc, you glance down and boom — the dashboard is right there, accessible to you but it’s not distracting you at all from your view out the windshield of the car.

With the Jet, and our snow product for that matter, it’s a very similar experience. It’s completely unobtrusive but take a quick glance down to the right and the data’s all right there.

We’ve enhanced that effect by harnessing a technology called “gaze detection”. With gaze detection, the display screen actually turns off when you’re not looking at it — it knows when your gaze is through the glasses and not at the display screen and it shuts itself off.

How does it know that?

I have no idea! It’s very much like a light in your refrigerator — it operates faster than your optic nerve can pick up so you never can catch the light in the refrigerator turning on, no matter how quickly you open that door. It’s always on then it turns off.

It’s the same thing. When you glance down, the display screen is able to react faster than your optic nerve can even detect that it was ever off and turns on. This then means that when you’re not looking at the screen the screen just goes dark and you’re not even aware that it’s on — there’s not even a glimmer of “there might be something down there to look at”. It just doesn’t exist. But glance down and it’s on; glance up and it doesn’t exist at all.

One of the things that seems most exciting about this is the fact that you’re allowing developers to create their own apps for the Jet. What sort of apps can you see people creating?

We’re looking at a huge range of possibility there. In the world of sport we start with some tremendous applications. Imagine for an oarsman, it’s obviously a sport where being able to access information hands free would be useful. An app that was telling the oarsman what his stroke rate is, what his blade pressure is, obviously what his physiological data is — heartrate, respiration rate, blood pressure, body-core temperature, stroke length — all of these things would be immensely useful to an oarsman.

Golf would be another very interesting app. Imagine you could be wearing a Jet and data would tell you that you are now 200 yards from the hole and based on past history of you personally as a golfer, playing this course or this type of hole profile, you should be swinging a five iron.

And based on the weather conditions today, of a certain humidity and a certain barometric pressure and a particular wind direction and velocity, here’s an actual map of the ball trajectory that should you be capable of achieving based on your ability as a golfer.

Now imagine a sensor attached to the golfer’s golf club where he takes some practice swings that would detect what the club-head speed is. You can take some practice swings and the heads-up display could be telling you immediately after you took that practice swing “you need to swing a little softer”, “you need to swing a little harder”, “that’s just the clubhead speed you need in order to optimise the shot you’re trying to execute”. So with an app, a quite simple one in fact, this type of functionality could easily be made available to the golfer.

But we don’t need to limit our vision to sports. We can imagine emergency healthcare and trauma surgery delivering patient vital statistics directly to the eye of the surgeon or the ambulance technician. Those biometric data points are easily accessible from sensors that can be attached to the patient’s body and could be frankly game-changing in a care case.

The list goes on and on into industry, oil and gas, military and law enforcement applications, where your critical data for infantrymen or police would be delivered direct to the eye. In high-intensity situations where there’s a little bit of chaos or uncertainty this could provide a lot of certainty and clarity.

The world really becomes quite wide open and accessible when you start thinking about all these cases where specific information, specific to a particular activity could be delivered instantly and so conveniently through the heads-up display could make a difference, whether in recreation or other pursuits. Those are all markets that can easily access through an app and all with the same piece of hardware. So that’s pretty exciting.

We’ve thought of a couple ideas here but the imaginations of the third-party developer world are far broader than ours so we hope to spark some creativity and we’ll see what the world decides to with the Jet platform.

We know that cyclists are a fickle bunch and that fashion can play a role in deciding what people and do and don’t buy. How much of an effect do you think this will have in the case of the Recon Jet?

It’s a very important question you’ve raised and we’re very sensitive to it. I come from 25 or 30 years of competitive riding so I’m very aware of the dynamic you’ve described. So we’re taking great pains to work with some accomplished eyewear designers to really sweat the details on not just the function of the sunglasses themselves and the electronics, but also the fit — how does it feel on the nose, how do the ear stems feel, how does it compare with other best-in-class products from established eyewear brands, and really make sure we’re hitting the mark with the sunglass component alone, separate and apart from the electronics and computing solution.

Then we try to take that same design sensibility and take it to the Jet itself. A lot of attention has been paid to the form factor, the shaping, the material selection, the cosmetic treatment and on the computer and the battery to ensure the nice integration of both the ergonomic component of the sunglasses and the industrial design of the electronics themselves.

You’re absolutely right — in the end we’re asking somebody to put something on their face so they better feel good about the way that makes them look.

When a lot of people hear about this product they’ll likely think of Google Glass. How are you guys positioning the Recon Jet in relation to Google Glass?

We really are grateful that Google is in this heads-up display space. We started on this category, pioneering it five years ago so we’re delighted to have Google to the party. Obviously they have very deep pockets and very smart people. They’re extremely helpful in creating awareness of the category.

So I view them very much as a benevolent competitor. Their positioning is very different from ours. Google’s concept is that an individual wakes up in the morning, they put on Google Glass, before they head downstairs — maybe before their feet hit the floor off the bed — and they wear it all day and it helps them, supports them and assists them in going about their daily activities — their work activities, their general errand-running, their commuting, going to get the kids picked up after school, “what’s the traffic like” — all general daily events. And from all appearances they’re going to do that extremely well. So we have a very high opinion, frankly, of Google Glass in that regard.

Recon Jet, by comparison, is activity specific. We do not aspire to be or wish to be a product that is worn 24/7. We don’t position it like that, we not designing it for that this case at all. Activity specificity is what the Recon Jet is all about.

So you’re going to go for a training ride on your bike and you put your Recon Jet on deliver specific information, specific functionality that enhances and empowers that cycling experience. With a third-party app you might also use Recon as a surgeon in a trauma unit when you’re running your shift, but you wouldn’t wear it when you’re out walking around looking for a restaurant. So it’s very activity specific delivery and a very rich, very data specific experience.

So that’s the fundamental difference. Of course there are technical differences — our product is perfectly balanced left and right in terms of weight — 14 grams on the left, 14 grams on the right — which of course for an athlete is extremely important. Whereas Google has put the entire mass of the product on one side.

With Glass you look up to see the translucent display; with Recon you glance down, which we found from an athletic point of view was the best spot for it. There may be good reasons for it to be up given the general use cases that Google presents but that’s not us.

Perhaps the most significant difference is the level of ruggedisation. Are experience with our snow goggle product, which we’ve obviously taken out in some pretty extreme conditions, has taught us a lot about ruggedisation, the requirements of the action-sports athlete and we have significantly ruggedised the product, made it completely waterproof — I wouldn’t go diving with it — but you can use it in the most horrendous rainstorm and it will be fine.

A huge range of temperature conditions will be fine. It can operate with gloves on when it’s soaking wet or in hot, dry conditions — you could have full-finger gloves, soaking wet and the touchpad is going to work just as well as with a bare finger in dry conditions. So there’s degree of ruggedisation we’ve put into the product which is important, of course, from an environmental perspective.

In the end I kind of some up the comparison between Jet and Glass like this. I think of Google Glass as an absolutely beautiful and incredibly well designed city bike that you might use to go and do all your daily stuff and really enjoy that bike. It’s a wonderful bike.

But then you come home from your day at the office, you put your city bike in the office and you go and put on your proper riding kit and grab your Cervelo S5 and now you’re going to go out with your mates and go tear it up for a couple of hours and go for a proper training ride. You wouldn’t use your city bike for that, and you wouldn’t take your high-performance road bike to work.

What are you looking forward to most in the wearable devices space? What do you think we’ll see in the years to come?

Wearable computing: there’s no question it’s the next thing in consumer computing and even in industrial and institutional-level computing. I mean you look at the level of investment made in the category in general by the major tech heavyweights and it’s quite clear this is the case.

Intel’s investment, that was announced a week or so ago, in Recon is testament to that. The announcements that have come through from the CEO since he took the helm roughly six months ago, creating the new devices group at Intel, putting Mike Bell — one of the most respected guys in [Silicon] Valley in charge of it — is testament to that.

You look at recent pronouncements from a variety of companies, both large and small in the wearable space and it’s quite clear that whether you’re talking heads-up display, in which there’s been quite a bit of activity and interest, but also in other areas — like computing embedded into athletic clothing which is of interest to the sports industry.

You look at products like the Myo or Elite Motion — these are all products that follow on what started a few years ago with things like the Nike Fuelband, Fit Bed and some of the wrist-mounted devices where you’re picking up biometric sensor data either directly from the device or beamed from a third-party device, that enriches and enlivens and enables either the athletic experience or simply world productivity in a way that wasn’t possible when the only access point for that information would have been sitting in your pocket or on top of your desk. Now it doesn’t have to be; it can be with you all the time.

It’s an extremely exciting space and one that I think, over the next five or ten years we’re just going to see explode in ways that are almost unimaginable today. It’s exciting to be right at the epicenter of all that action.