High-tech Skully helmet: A Google Glass that's born to be wild

The Skully P1 motorcycle helmet's heads-up display and integrated tech is far from ready, but it holds the promise to revolutionize both biker lids and consumer-grade heads-up displays.

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SAN FRANCISCO -- The scariest thing about riding a motorcycle is the cars and trucks. To help riders deal with big, boxy, and often lethal vehicles, the Skully P1 motorcycle helmet sticks a Google Glass-style heads-up display, rear-view camera, and Bluetooth in the helmet. But isn't that tech more distracting and dangerous?

It's hard to imagine how hurtling yourself at freeway speeds down the road while dealing with what appears to be a Google Glass knockoff is a safe way to get wherever you're going. It sounds extremely cool, and ridiculously dangerous.

How can you pay attention to cars zipping about you, sometimes within inches of killing you, while flipping your eyes around to focus on a clear plastic box at the bottom of your field of vision?

That's what I was considering on Thursday in the bright noontime sun as I slid on the Skully P1 and gently wiggled my glasses back into the helmet, one of three prototypes in existence.

I was the first person outside the company to road-test the helmet, which is based on a shell from one of the top American helmet manufacturers and has been in development since May 2012. Skully's founder, Marcus Weller, and its director of mechanical engineering, Drew Shirmer, had given me plenty of background on the helmet: how it works, why it works, which features were operational and which ones were yet to come.

Since its debut a few weeks ago at a tech conference in San Francisco, where the angel-funded Skully scored the DEMOgod award, the Skully P1 has attracted more than 35,000 requests through an online form from would-be beta testers, said Weller.

The Skully helmet is not designed to give you full Internet access. Its limited features -- GPS maps and navigation, always-on rear-view camera, a Bluetooth connection to your phone for music streaming and call management -- nevertheless might prove more appealing to some people than the more open ended tool that Google Glass is. Skully's helmet is for Internet-augmented motorcycling, and even in its rough, in-development form, it's possible to evaluate those features.

We stood on an unusually wind-free and warm Treasure Island in the middle of San Francisco Bay, about a mile from the Google barge , and I struggled to adjust the heads-up display. It sits on a ball joint in the lower right corner of the helmet, unobtrusive and no taller than the breath deflector, but I couldn't see what it was supposed to be showing me.

Skully Helmets founder Marcus Weller, holding a prototype Skully Helmet that sports a heads-up display, rear-view camera, and integrated Bluetooth. Skully

Finally, we realized that the display brightness might have to be adjusted because of the bright sun. Closing the prototype helmet's tinted visor did the trick, and suddenly in the right corner of my field of vision I could see a small display of the world behind me, projected what appeared to be 15 to 20 feet ahead of me.

The goal, he said, is to make the heads-up display appear far enough away so that it requires as minimal an amount of ocular muscle accommodation as possible, but not so far that it appears to be a small TV at the end of a long tunnel.

The rear-view camera was not the final production model, Weller later told me. The one on the helmet I was testing offered up a view of around 75 to 80 degrees. The final production will give riders a full 180 degree view, said Weller.

In the video above, you can see me turning my head to check my side mirror. That won't be eliminated with the final Skully, but you'll have to do it a lot less.

Surprisingly, even in its rough prototype state, the foundational promise of the Skully helmet holds fast. A gentle flick of your eyes downward and you can check your surroundings for incoming vehicles. That quick shifting of the eyes down and up again takes less time than it does to turn your head to the mirror, or even further around.

Right there, that's safety gold. To be able to see what's around you without taking your eyes off of the road in front of you is an incredible boon to bikers.

"It's like being surrounded by ninjas," said Weller. "You know one of them is going to attack you, but you don't know which one. Imagine you can keep your eyes on them right in your periphery while looking forward."

While it may seem that attempting to see in front of yourself and behind yourself at the same time while avoiding becoming street sushi is a task too dangerous for the human brain, it worked impressively well. The display was not distracting, as long as I treated it like a conventional side mirror.

"What's the opposite of distracting is taking all that information [from the rear-view camera] and putting it up in one place, so that I can consume that information at a rate that was physically impossible before," said Weller.

The key to the Skully helmet is the heads-up display, which looks large here but is actually unobtrusive from inside the helmet. Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

The lower right corner was an intentional placement for the heads-up display. Bikers already look there when checking their side mirrors, Weller said, and he explained that the easiest way to get people comfortable with the helmet was to make it as familiar as possible.

"We wanted natural familiarity," he said. "Familiarity breeds liking. The more you're exposed to something, the more you like it."

That familiarity, he said, would come from exploiting actions riders already make. "You capitalize on behaviors you know that people have, you don't create new ones." Otherwise, Weller added, "you have so many user adoption and safety issues."

The integrated rear-view camera and display would probably be enough for many riders, but the Skully P1 has more features.

The helmet comes with onboard GPS, so that if you don't have a smartphone you can still get directions. Directional arrows appeared in my display with a soft glow, and then went away in the same manner. Weller said that the company's research showed that abrupt pop ups would distract the rider, so they went with more gentle visual notifications.

Skully P1 motorcycle helmet
This mock-up of what riding with a Skully will look like. The main view takes up most of your field of vision, while the heads-up display sits out of the way in the lower-right corner. The reality of using it was closer to this than you'd expect for a prototype. Skully Helmets

However, the full GPS system was not yet functional. One of the difficult design challenges for the GPS, Weller said, is to create a display and rider experience where they're given just the right information at just the right time. Missing a turn in a motorcycle can be a deadly error. A planned but not active Wi-Fi component will allow people without smartphones to update and synchronize their maps, otherwise you'll be able to do it on the fly with your phone.

The Bluetooth phone pairing and built-in audio speakers were functional, and streamed music from the phone in my pocket to the helmet in crisp, clear sound. The planned microphone, which will give the rider voice control over the helmet and allow for phone calls, was not yet built into the model I tested.

Listening to music while riding is one thing, but having an occasional voice tell you when to turn has the potential to be another high-risk riding activity. Unfortunately, even though the speakers were working, the GPS's audio component demonstrated in the Skully promotional video was not yet operational.

Also planned but not available to me was a remote control for the handlebars.

CNET's Seth Rosenblatt tests an early, pre-market prototype of the Skully Helmet. CNET

The Skully helmet is designed to be a premium product costing somewhere "north of $1,000, but not obscene," said Weller. It'll have a nine-hour battery life, to outlast a full day's worth of riding.

Weller and company are looking at new kinds of fabric for the helmet's insides, and ways to charge the battery while on the go. Weller is aiming for an ideal weight toward the lower end of the helmet range, meaning closer to three pounds rather than five.

Demand is much higher than Weller expected, so while he'd like to have it available for the 2014 riding season in the spring, he's not sure his company can hit that production target.

Just as there are always more variables when you go out for a ride than you can actually plan for, any number of problems could crash the Skully project. But assuming that Weller and his team continue to exert the same kind of attention to safety and detail that has taken them this far, the Skully helmet could be the first of a revolutionizing wave of heads-up display technologies that reach far beyond mere motorcycle tech.

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