Visions of the future: wearable devices and cycling

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One of the most exciting trends in the future technology space is that of “wearable computing” – tiny computerised devices that can be worn to enhance your everyday experience in some way. As development in this space has continued, it’s become clear that any number of these devices and their applications could enhance the sport of cycling.

When you think of wearable computing you probably first think about Google Glass — the search giant’s minimalistic eyewear that pairs with your smartphone to deliver notifications, updates and valuable information direct to your eye.

The potential for this kind of technology is immense and the promo videos (see below) give you a sense of just what Google Glass could be capable of. One of the most promising features is the ability to record HD video (720p) and take hi-resolution stills (5 megapixels) all without using your hands. This has great potential from a cycling perspective.

If you’ve ever seen on-board camera footage from a bike race (see video below) you’ll know that it’s thrilling to watch and provides a unique perspective on the race. But sadly, on-board cameras are currently outlawed in races.

We spoke to Rob Ingall, National Technical Manager at Cycling Australia who confirmed that helmet-mounted cameras aren’t allowed in Cycling Australia races as they are considered a modification to the helmet and are therefore forbidden by the Australian helmet standards.

And it’s not just in Australia — the UCI has banned all bike- or helmet- mounted cameras, despite renewed calls for a reassessment of that particular rule.

Having a video camera built in to a rider’s sunglasses could get around the problem and open up a whole new perspective on professional racing.

But racing is only one angle to be explored here.

Prior to the world championships you might have seen this video package on the SUFFERvision website, which combines footage of the Florence circuit used in the road races and real-time data captured by the riders riding the course.

While this is clearly already possible using a series of cameras and relevant data-capturing devices (e.g. Garmin 510), it’s a little fiddly to pair up the data and the video to give an accurate representation of the course.

If you had something like Google Glass that was able to take HD video, display and log ride telemetry and combine the two streams, creating video packages like the one mentioned above would be far simpler.

You could use videos such as these for showing decisive parts of bike races (as with the Florence video), for documenting your best effort up a favourite climb, for comparing your effort on a particular segment of road against a mate (think side-by-side video) and much more.

One device that could make this possible is the Recon Jet, a set of sunglasses with built-in computing power to help enhance the cycling experience. We spoke to Tom Fowler, the Chief Marketing Officer at Recon Instruments about the capabilities of the Jet, which is due for launch early in 2014.

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.

That computing power … 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 with 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 heads-up display.

The Recon Jet is capable of taking HD video (720p) like Google Glass but as Tom told us, the device wasn’t necessarily designed as a professional video solution like a GoPro or other dedicated camera systems.

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.

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.

But it’s not hard to imagine a device similar to Glass or the Jet (or even future versions of these) that could record enough video at a high-enough quality to be of use in capturing whole criteriums, say, or enough of a road race to be able to edit the resultant video into a nice highlights package.

Of course video is only one part of the equation.

Imagine every rider in the pro peloton wearing a device like the Recon Jet. Riders’ data — such as heartrate, power output, cadence, speed and so on — could be beamed back to the team’s sports director in real-time, giving the DS a clear view of how hard each of the riders are going, how they might be able to react to an attack, whether they might be able to launch an attack of their own and so on.

And imagine if that real-time data was also made available to TV or online broadcasters for fans to access as the race was unfolding. As a fan you could track, in real-time, how much power a rider was putting down as they attacked on a climb or tried to establish a breakaway. This sort of technology has been available in the past but it could be introduced far more extensively with this technology, assuming riders and teams would be supportive of it.

The same technology could be used to beam valuable information directly to the riders’ eyepieces, including the profile of the race and where notable climbs or cobbled sectors are, what the relevant time gaps on the road are, and so on.

Of course, you wouldn’t want this information to be visible to the riders all the time as it could cause a potential distraction. In this way, technology like Recon Jet’s gaze detection could be invaluable, as Tom Fowler explains.

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.

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.

Image by James Dunn (screenshot capture from GoPro)
Image by James Dunn (screenshot capture from GoPro)

Turning away from racing, similar hardware and software could potentially be used to keep track of people on your group ride. There could be a bunch of you riding out to meet up in the hills. Thanks to the built-in GPS capabilities of your eyewear and the ability of the eyepieces to talk to one another you could see where all your mates are, and how far away that one always-late rider is.

Once you all arrive you might race one another up a particular hill as a handicap challenge. You set off first, knowing that your mates are faster climbers than you, and in your eyepiece you can see exactly how far behind your mates are and whether they’re likely to catch you by the top.

While the current version of the Recon Jet doesn’t have a sim card or other way of wirelessly communicating between other devices or a central communications hub, it’s not hard to imagine that being a possibility in years to come. The Recon jet does feature GPS though, as Tom Fowler explained.

The product has … 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.

The device 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.

The vision spelled out above is available in some sense through Garmin’s LiveTrack (see video below) but the technology still has a ways to come. For a start LiveTrack is dependant on being coupled with a smartphone (meaning battery life is a problem, especially on a long ride) and there are issues of phone signal in remote areas (which are often the most enjoyable areas to ride).

It could be that a partnership between companies like Garmin and Recon Instruments could help move things along in this space. Tom Fowler spoke of a great relationship between the two companies already.

We have tremendous respect for what Garmin has developed with its technology over the years and certainly their navigation software is best-in-class.

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.

This sort of technology could also be very useful for training. Imagine you’re heading out to your local training hill to try and post a new best time. You download from Strava the GPX file of a rider who’s done the time you’re aiming for. You load that up onto your GPS-enabled eyewear for a supercharged version of the experience already possible through things like Garmin’s Virtual Partner.

By comparing your position and time to those of the rider in the file, your eyewear could project an image of the ghost rider directly ahead of you on the road. We all know (and studies have shown) that having someone just slightly ahead of you can inspire you to bigger and better things.

Similarly, we’ve all been climbing and thought about how fast we’d need to go in order to set the new KOM on the climb. Imagine being able to load up the KOM-leader’s GPX file and see them fly off into the distance — it would be inspirational and demoralising at the same time.

While devices like the Recon Jet and Google Glass are limited in their abilities to create augmented reality this technology is well and truly developing and can easily be imagined as part of the future direction of these devices.

An intermediate step might be a simple dot on the road instead of a vision of a ghost rider, or perhaps a solid line as is done in swimming broadcasts on TV, comparing the progress of the athletes in the current race to the world record mark.

And then there are the applications that could be relevant to commuters or any cyclists looking to find their way somewhere. It’s not that much of a stretch to envisage contextual satellite navigation, similar to what you might see in your car’s GPS unit, albeit displayed as a transparency over your regular vision.

The directions to your destination could be displayed as arrows on the road in front of you, with relevant hazards, such as potholes or parked cars, highlighted for you. This simulated image from ChainReactionHub paints an exciting picture.

Again, this would require eyewear technology that was able to overlay generated images on the entirety of the athlete’s vision, not just a small screen in a corner of the glasses as is possible with Google Glass (top right corner) and Recon Jet (bottom right corner).

Of course these are only a handful of the many potential applications when it comes to the intersection of cycling and wearable devices. Perhaps the most exciting part about this new technology space is that many companies are allowing third-party developers to create their own apps for their devices.

Tom Fowler from Recon Instruments spoke about new apps that could be written for the Recon Jet (which runs a version of the Android operating system) to be used for golfers, rowers, and even for those in healthcare, industry, the military or law enforcement.

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.

The Magellan Echo is another wearable computing device, designed more at the running market, which allows third-party app development. Here’s what Magellan Brand Manager Paris Basson had to say:

Magellan strives to be an open platform and offers the Echo’s API for any app developer to develop what they see as the perfect fitness app, benefiting the consumer with choice of apps and ensuring customers’ data can be shared wherever they please.

Google, too, has made the Google Glass API openly available, making it possible for developers to build their own apps and make this technology useful in ways Google never would have envisioned.

Of course, you might be reading this article and thinking: “I don’t want or need more technology when I’m riding”, and that’s fair enough. At the end of the day, any technology that’s introduced to the athletic experience should simply serve to enhance the experience rather than overpower it.

Just as there’s nothing forcing you to go out and buy a Garmin 510 and set up a Strava account, there’ll be nothing forcing you to fork out for Recon Jet or equivalent. But the reality is the Garmin/Strava combination has transformed the cycling experience for many riders and there’s no reason to suggest that wearable devices won’t do the same.

What do you think? Would you wear something like the Recon Jet? Why, or why not? What impact do you think devices such as these will have on cycling in years to come? Have your say below.

For a full transcript of our chat with Tom Fowler, Chief Marketing Officer of Recon Jet, click here. We have requested one of their units to review as soon as they are available in Australia, likely in March 2014.