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by Matt de Neef
August 20, 2015
Photography by Matt de Neef
Recon Jet is a sunglasses-mounted heads-up display that can provide cyclists and other athletes with real-time information about their activity. We first learned about the Recon Jet back in late 2013 when we spoke with Tom Fowler at Recon Instruments about the company’s soon-to-be launched Jet. CyclingTips editor Matt de Neef has since spent some time using the Recon Jet and wrote the following review.
The trend towards wearable devices has continued to gather momentum in recent years and the sports and recreation space is an obvious candidate for such devices. It’s been nearly two years since we wrote about the possible applications wearable devices could have for cyclists and over the past couple months we’ve had the opportunity to put one such device to the test.
The Recon Jet is one of two heads-up display products made by Canadian tech company Recon Instruments, a company recently acquired by tech giant Intel. Designed primarily with cyclists and runners in mind, Recon Jet is essentially a set of sunglasses with a screen, computer processor and battery pack attached to it.
The screen can be used to display a range of information, including real-time data about the ride they athlete is currently on. The idea is to make that information available with a quick gaze below the right eye, rather than by taking one’s eyes off the road to look at a stem-mounted head unit.
So what’s it like to use the Recon Jet?
First impressions are important with any type of product but they are particularly important in the case of the Recon Jet. The size and appearance of the unit will play a considerable role in determining whether people decide to buy it. We cyclists are a fickle, fashion-conscious lot. You might have even written the Recon Jet off based solely on the photo above.
In the review period we showed the Recon Jet to probably half a dozen people in and around the CyclingTips office and most if not all were dismissive of the device based on its form factor. This sort of feedback is something the team at Recon Instruments is well aware of.
Mark Riedy from TRUE Communications, the company responsible for marketing the Jet, told us that he’d had journalists say to him “I won’t wear that thing”. His take was that “people either love it or don’t love it. We’re trying to be sensitive to that. It’s divisive.” But Mark is convinced that “if there’s enough of a reason to use it, people will use it.”
The battery-pack side of the Jet.
When you first pull the Recon Jet out of the case the immediate thought you get is that it’s much bulkier and heavier than a regular set of sunglasses. It also feels quite fragile. And when you put the Jet on for the first time it’s hard to ignore the fact that part of your vision is obscured.
When first riding with the unit you certainly notice the screen and its housing slightly below your right eye, but it doesn’t block out too much of the road ahead. After a couple of hours of riding I was able to get used to the screen and where it sat, but it was the way the Jet obscured my peripheral vision that was of greater concern.
The battery pack and computer processor sit on either side of the head, almost entirely blocking your peripheral vision. I found it particularly disconcerting when turning my head to check behind me. The unit would make it almost impossible to see behind without tilting my head into an uncomfortable position. As it is I wouldn’t feel safe riding in heavy traffic with the Recon Jet.
That said, you do get used to having reduced peripheral vision after a few hours. Taking the Jet off after that time is quite an eye-opening experience — a whole lot more of the world around you is suddenly visible.
The Recon Jet is operated by two buttons (and on/off/back button and a select button) and an optical swipe pad, both mounted on the right-hand side of the unit. These interface controls allow you to move between data screens and menus, and fiddle with various options once you’re in the menus. The optical touch pad is usable “in all weather” and works even if you’ve got gloves on.
Through the Settings menu you can connect a range of sensors to the Jet via ANT+, including heartrate monitors, cadence and speed sensors and power meters. With that done, you’re ready to start recording your ride or run.
That black square is the optical swipe pad. You can see the two buttons positioned underneath.
There are a handful of screens to swipe through once you’ve begun your activity: a compass, a maps page (more on that below) and up to six data screens which can be customised to show a selection of the data fields you would expect, including speed, distance, power, elevation gain, gradient, calories burnt and so forth.
When you’ve finished your activity you can save it to the device and it will be uploaded to Recon Engage — Recon Instruments’ answer to Strava and Garmin Connect — next time you connect the Jet to your computer. Much like other GPS-enabled devices, the Jet will creates a map showing you where you rode or ran, in addition to other data from your ride.
While you can’t upload your Jet-recorded activities directly to Strava, you can export activities from Engage and then manually upload the GPX or FIT file to Strava.
The Recon Engage activity page for a short, leisurely ride.
To begin with I found the optical swipe pad quite uncomfortable to use — I found myself having to contort my right arm in a strange way to get my index finger into a position to use the pad. More troubling, however, was the fact that I found it quite difficult to see the screen.
Even with a toggle switch on the bottom of the unit to move the screen around, I couldn’t get it in a position where I could comfortably and reliably see the whole screen. To get a clear view of the screen I had to both close my left eye and squint with my right eye. After doing this for a while I started to get a headache and decided to take the device off. I also had issues with sun glare making it hard to see the screen, even with the brightness turned right up.
On two occasions the Recon Jet also crashed on me, just as a result of taking the glasses off my head at traffic lights to clean the lenses. On both occasions I had to disconnect the battery and processor units, reconnect them both then reboot the unit.
In addition to ANT+ compatibility the Recon Jet can connect to your smartphone using Bluetooth Smart and the MOD Live app (once you’ve created an account). Doing so allows you to control your phone’s music player through the Jet, see incoming text messages and calls, and see the location of friends who are also using the Jet to track their activities (assuming they’ve got that feature turned on). Friend tracking can also be used by non-Jet users, to see where a Jet user is at a particular time.
There’s also a piece of software called Recon Uplink which allows you to connect the Jet with your computer, and the aforementioned Recon Engage website which, in addition to being a place to share your activities, is where you can download apps for the Jet.
The Jet comes with just a couple of apps installed, such as the camera (see below). But the app centre on the Recon Engage site has — at the time of writing — another 10 apps you can install through Uplink and use on your Jet. These include a Garmin Virb app — to control the Virb camera — the Refuel app — which provides real-time nutrition and hydration advice — plus a range of apps for other sports and activities, and a range of mini-games.
While the range of apps is limited at this stage, this is arguably one of the most exciting features of the device. App development is available to all via the free software development kit (SDK).
The main function I found myself using on the Jet was the camera. The device can take photos at 1280 by 960 pixels, which are automatically uploaded to your computer and Recon Engage when you connect the Jet post-activity. As you can see below, the image quality isn’t great:
Image taken with the Recon Jet.
You can also take videos using the Jet but, frustratingly, these are limited to 15 seconds at a time. This is presumably to preserve battery life and the device’s storage space, but it is a very limiting feature. Hopefully someone will develop a third-party camera app which circumvents these limits, allowing users to shoot for as long as the device will handle.
As you can see in the video above — a collection of shorter videos taken with the Jet — the biggest issue the camera has is the angle at which it is set up. Unless you make a concerted and unnatural effort to get it to shoot straight ahead, the camera points at the ground a few metres ahead of you. Not ideal.
As mentioned, the Jet has the ability to display maps while you’re riding. Using the Map Manager on Recon Engage, you can select up to 10,000km2 of maps to upload to the device.
Uploading maps to the Recon Jet using the Map Manager on Recon Engage.
These maps show your location (and can be set up to show your friends’ locations) and while the Jet website suggests street names are visible, I couldn’t get them to be displayed. The mapping app certainly doesn’t have the same level of navigation functionality as a Garmin 1000, say, or the Google Maps app on your iPhone.
The Recon Jet has interchangeable lenses. In addition to the regular dark lenses, clear and lenses can be purchased and swapped out. The Jet can be warn just as a set of sunglasses as well, just by removing the battery and computer processor attachments.
One of the niftiest features of the Recon Jet is it’s glance detection. Once calibrated, the screen will turn off when you’re not looking at it but will turn back on as soon as you focus your vision on it. Recon Instruments suggests the feature won’t work for everyone but I had no trouble getting it to work.
The Recon Instruments website claims up to four hours of “typical use” per battery. Included in that typical use case is an ambient temperature of 20°C, connection to third-party sensors and a smartphone via Bluetooth, as well as “moderate use” of the camera and maps. According to Recon Instruments, “battery life will decrease at low temperatures and with heavy use” and if the GPS is left on throughout the ride.
In our tests we got between 2.5 and 3.5 hours per battery — not long enough for an all-day jaunt through the mountains but fine for a couple-hour cruise. Spare batteries are available, however.
The Recon Jet can be purchased directly from the Recon Instruments website in black or white for US$699 (AU$950). Additional lenses cost US$74.99 (AU$102).
As things stand, it’s hard to recommend the Recon Jet in its current form. The challenges of seeing the screen clearly and comfortably are a concern, as too is the way the device cuts off your peripheral vision. The camera, while handy, is not up to the same standard as the offerings of GoPro, Sony, Shimano, Garmin and others.
For many people, the bulky form factor of the Jet and the chance of getting laughed at by their mates will be enough to make the device a no-go. Others might argue that the device doesn’t ‘do enough’ to make it a worthwhile replacement to a good GPS-enabled head unit and a handlebar-mounted camera of your choice.
All that said, there is something quite exciting about the Jet and what Recon Instruments is trying to do. The wearable devices space is one that has already created a lot of excitement and one that has plenty more potential. The applications in the sporting world are obvious and it’s not hard to see a device like the Recon Jet being used by professional athletes in the years to come.
We will continue to watch this space with interest.
Update: As of October 29, 2015, Recon Instruments has partnered with FE Sports to distribute the Recon Jet in Australia. It will retail for $799.