Nearly four years ago, Google published a video previewing what it might be like to use an augmented reality headset. It showed all kinds of useful information hanging out in the corner of your vision, and then that same information lowering into your view as you needed to know critical details, like how to get from one place to another. That fascinating concept never made it to life — all we got was Google Glass.
But now BMW is taking some of that video's best ideas and turning them into a much more useful product. It's making a motorcycle helmet with a Glass-like heads-up-display, allowing information like speed limits, directions, and incoming phone calls to be displayed in your field of view. BMW is calling this helmet a concept for now, but it had a wearable demo on display at CES.
The helmet has an exceptionally snug fit — I'm told this is normal for motorcycle helmets — and it took me a minute to get the eyepiece in a place where I could read it. Once it was on, BMW put me on a stationary motorcycle, complete with rumbling, noise, and fans to throw wind in your face. It then started the bike off on a virtual drive, with a screen in front of me displaying an empty road that winds past fields of grass and along the side of a cliff.
It's immediately clear why this tech is useful
As soon as the ride started, a glowing green box appeared in the center of my vision, with the bike's increasing speed displayed on the left and its current gear displayed smaller on the right. Note that, unlike in BMW's promotional imagery, the demo I saw only included one color: green. The bigger problem for me was that the text was sitting right on top of the road. After adjusting the helmet a bit, I was able to get it to a comfortable spot off to the right, where I could see my speed without it getting in the way. I'm not sure where the display is supposed to sit; BMW shows it at the bottom, but I can't even imagine how it would get down there.
Still, even at this prototype stage, it was immediately clear how BMW's helmet can improve upon some of the key promises of Glass. For one, this is a motorcycle helmet — not something you're going to be wearing all day — so the eyepiece can be much bigger, making it easier to read. There's also an obvious and very helpful use case: motorcycle riders won't have to look down to see their speed; it also offers pertinent information — road safety updates, maps, and so on — that they otherwise wouldn't have a way to check.
BMW hopes to bring its helmet from concept to a retail product within a few years. It likely still has a lot to do. While the display, which comes from an augmented-reality eyepiece company called DigiLens, already works fairly well, much of the helmet's intelligence — its ability to connect to the bike and your phone — appears to be incomplete, explaining why BMW was showing a scripted, non-interactive demo. If BMW can get it all working, this helmet could be one of the first augmented reality headsets worth wearing.