While shooting in Park City last December for our Top Shelf episode on winter tech, I finally got to test a product I'd waited years to try: ski goggles with a heads-up display. The technology was made by Recon Instruments, a Canadian company started in 2008 as a business school project at the University of British Columbia.
The software was a bit sluggish, and the battery only lasted about half a day on the mountain, but otherwise the experience was amazing. Seeing my speed and altitude in real time was thrilling, and the live trail maps completely enhanced my time on the mountain. It was a transhuman kind of experience.
The Recon Jet is the next evolution of that experience, and it's much more accessible. It takes that same idea of a heads-up display and moves it to a more portable pair of sports-style sunglasses. Instead of requiring a lift ticket to enjoy it, the Jet works just as well on a bike ride as it does when you're jogging around the block.
The company gave me a short demo in our office last month, and it works much better than the winter sports version. That's because the software it runs has been totally revamped, and also because Recon has been working on the Jet for years — the first time we tried a prototype was when it debuted at Google's I/O developer conference in 2013.
All the information sits just below your right eye in a spot that's surprisingly easy to glance at. The screen quality is vastly improved from past versions, too, and you have more control over the positioning of it than before. Recon doesn't expect you to wear it all day, however.
The display wont last all day, but you can detach it or swap batteries
"We think the proper way to think about smart eyewear is in an activity-specific way," Tom Fowler, Recon's chief marketing officer, tells me. So the team made the Jet with modular hardware. The battery — which lasts about four hours and can be swapped — is housed in a unit on one side of the glasses, and the display, touchpad, and all the internals are in a unit on the other. Each are easy to clip off, which leaves you with a big and sporty pair of sunglasses. Even the lenses and frames separate, and Recon sells alternate versions of each piece. The whole package weighs 85 grams — noticeably heavier than normal sunglasses, but the Jet still feels light. I wasn't worried about the glasses falling off, either, though it's not like I was working up a sweat.
The $699 price tag isn't cheap, but frankly that's the Jet's biggest drawback. For competitive or even casual athletes, it's a much better price point than Google Glass, and a more attractive option overall. Inside there's a 1GHz dual-core processor, 1GB of RAM, and 8GB of storage. It pairs to your phone via Bluetooth for access to social media notifications and messages, accepting and rejecting calls, and controlling music.
You don't need your phone, though. The Jet shoots video and photos, uses maps and navigation, tracks your speed and altitude, and more, all while unpaired. Interaction with the software is performed with an optical touchpad, which in the demo worked much better than the touchpad found on Google Glass. You can swipe up, down, left, and right — but you also use rocker buttons underneath the right module to move through menus, instead of tapping the touchpad like with Glass. It's a much better experience: it's harder for accidental clicks to register, and you won't knock the glasses off balance as easily.
The Recon Jet is not for everyone. Future versions could certainly be sleeker, and other companies are trying to find ways to put screens in front of our faces. (Sony's working on one, and Google's not done trying.) But plenty of people have been waiting for a device like the Jet, and for them, that wait is over.