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Skiing showdown: GPS-informed goggles miss the mark

CNET reporter Jay Greene, an avid skier, hit the slopes to try three pricey goggles with heads-up displays showing his speed and distance. Glitches in both the hardware and software led him to a much cheaper, more reliable alternative.

Jay Greene wears Zeal Optics Z3 goggles, which use GPS technology and a heads-up display to let skiers know how fast they're moving and how far they've gone.
Patricia Kingdon/CNET

As a skier, I've often wondered how fast I'm skiing when I'm skiing really fast.

Turns out it's 44.7 miles per hour.

I got my answer from Zeal Optics's Z3 goggles during a December trip to Whistler Blackcomb mountain in British Columbia. The Z3s are a new, and very expensive, breed of goggles that capture data using GPS technology and flash it on a tiny heads-up display unit at the bottom of the field of vision on the right side of lens. Zipping down Springboard, a wide-open, groomed intermediate run, the tiny display ticked off my speed as the slope steepened and the wind whistled past me.

Zeal is one of a handful of ski goggle makers selling devices that include the heads-up display technology from Recon Instruments, a Vancouver, B.C., company that's trying to bring hands-free, real-time performance statistics to skiers. The devices include tiny GPS receivers and a set of sensors to provide speed, distance, vertical descent data, and more. I also brought along goggles from Oakley and Smith Optics that use Recon's heads-up displays to test during my ski trip as well.

Zeal Optics Z3 goggles sport a tiny monitor inside to let skiers track their speed, the amount of vertical feet covered, and even map their location when they connect to a computer later. Zeal Optics

But after five days on the mountain in Whistler and two days at Crystal Mountain in Washington state, I can't recommend buying any of the goggles. As cool as the heads-up display technology is, the goggles routinely faltered, not charging in some instances, not connecting to a separate controller unit at other times, and offering up a baffling collection of error messages that could only be deciphered by a coding geek.

Those glitches are particularly problematic for goggles that start at a wallet-busting suggested retail price of $450 and climb to $650. The most expensive pair cost as much as a weeklong lift ticket at Whistler, and nearly three times as much as the most expensive gadget-free goggles from Oakley, often the priciest of goggle makers. With that price tag, the heads-up goggles should be reliable. But they're not.

Let's start with the Oakley Airwave. These $600 babies are beautiful goggles. Oakley has the whole industrial-design thing nailed. The Airwaves fit well with all the different ski helmets that my friends and family use. The "White Factory Text" graphics with the "Fire Iridium" lenses I tried look, well, pretty badass, to be honest. And, as goggles, they work great, giving skiers fog-free viewing while filtering out 100 percent of ultraviolet light.

Oakley Airwave goggles use GPS and a heads-up display to let skiers keep track of their speed and distance traveled. Patricia Kingdon/CNET

The goggles offered so much promise. I wasn't just going to be able to track my speed. I could also have seen the distance I traveled, my current altitude, and my total vertical descent. I was even going to be able to pair the heads-up display with my iPhone so I could view incoming calls and texts, a nifty little feature that would have let me ignore all my work calls and only respond to the ones from my wife, kids, and friends with whom I was skiing, to meet up for lunch or an end-of-the-day run. There's even a way to control my music playlists so I could rock out to just the right tunes.

But it was all for naught. The problem, for me, was that the Recon heads-up display unit was finicky to a fault. For several days, it simply wouldn't charge. So I shelved the goggles, only to try a few days later, when they actually did charge up. But when I turned them on, I got an error message on the heads-up display that read: "Sorry! The application Reconjni (process com.reconinstruments.nativetest) has stopped unexpectedly. Please try again."

But I couldn't try again. That's because I needed to click "force close" using a wireless controller that comes with every Recon unit. The controller, though, hadn't paired with the goggles yet. So there was no way to force close the application. And restarting the heads-up display just triggered the same error message. So I was unable to demo the technology on the Oakleys at all. (A Recon spokesman later said the company is aware of the bug and plans to fix it with the next software update.)

I was ready to write my Recons off as merely a defective set of goggles. But I had trouble with Smith's I/O Recon goggles as well.

Smith Optics I/O Recon goggles, like every ski goggle that uses GPS speed-tracking technology from Recon Instruments, includes a wireless remote controller that can be attached to the goggle strap to navigate from screen to screen on a heads-up display unit inside the goggles. The remote can also be strapped on the skier's wrist. Jay Greene/CNET

Like the Airwaves, the $650 I/O Recons are a great-looking goggle. The design is based on Smith's top-of-the-line I/O goggles, a model that I've used for the past year and loved. The I/O Recons are trim, remarkably fog free, and use the I/O's easy-to-swap lens system, making it a snap to switch lenses when the days go from sunny to gray.

And for the first few days, the I/O Recons worked pretty well. I was able to track my speed and check the distance I traveled. It was fun, albeit a bit dangerous, to see if I could beat my top speed. And I loved one of the simplest features of the goggles: the clock at the bottom of the screen. I never had to take off my gloves and fish underneath my parka to find my watch to figure out the time.

But after three days of use, the I/O Recons started to show some flaws. That was the day a friend, Patricia, was using them. For an hour or so, the display kept running through a tutorial on how to use the goggles and wouldn't stop, no matter how often she pressed a button, any button, on the controller. And then it stopped on its own. And then it restarted, without any help, and ran through the tutorial again.

Evidently, according to Recon, if Patricia had pressed Up, then Down, then Back on the remote, she could have skipped the tutorial. Hmmm, OK. Seems a lot to ask of someone in the middle of a ski run. And resetting the device should also have worked, though pressing the power button didn't seem to do the trick on slopes.

Eventually, during lunch, we were able to turn the goggles off, and stop the madness. When she tried them after lunch, Patricia got a new message. This time, the device was trying to update the firmware, and having no success, of course, because it wasn't connected to a computer. She was able to turn the display off this time, and just skied with a very nice set of goggles that had an entirely unusable heads-up display.

The Zeals were the most reliable of the batch I used. The $550 Z3 goggles I tried came out a year ago, and come with an earlier version of Recon's technology. The display is a bit different, with fewer options to capture data and no ability to connect to a smartphone to see incoming calls or control music. The goggles themselves aren't quite as sleek as the Smiths or Oakleys. They didn't quite fit my POC Receptor Bug helmet, pushing down a little uncomfortably on my nose. The Z3s come with what Zeal calls "Polarized Automatic" lenses, which change with the light so skiers don't need to swap lenses for different conditions.

I had only the slightest of hardware issues with the Recon unit in the Z3 goggles. There were times it took the device several runs to display altitude data. One day the power ran out before I was done for the day. So I was unable to track my last few runs.

Ski data, uploaded from Zeal Optics Z3 goggles to Recon Instruments Web site, mistakenly capture the wrong date and a wildly inaccurate distance measurement. Screenshot by Jay Greene/CNET

The bigger problems came when I uploaded data from the goggles to Recon's Web site. The site listed my Whistler runs as being in November, even though I had set up the goggles with the correct date previously. The Web site also showed that I skied 257.5 miles that day, about the distance from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. I like to cover a lot of ground when I ski, but honestly, I probably covered about a tenth of that distance. The spokesman for Recon attributed that to a "very rare" anomaly in GPS signals that didn't get detected by the software, and added that the company's engineers are "tightening up the algorithms."

That said, the Zeals were dependable enough to give me a sense about of was cool and what was lacking in the technology -- when it does work more smoothly.

With both the Zeal and Smith goggles, I was surprised at how unobtrusive the heads-up display was. I thought it might be distracting, but it's entirely in the periphery, glance-able without screaming for attention. And my survival instinct kept me from focusing on the display when I was topping 40 mph. It was too important to focus on the undulations in the run itself.

I was also pleased at how easy it was to read the display. I ski with contact lenses because my middle-aged eyes don't see distance as well as they once did. But that means I can't read a menu or even e-mails on my iPhone without some strain. I had no such problems with the heads-up display, though, which sits less than an inch from my right eye.

Even when working well, the Recon units have a few design flaws that can be frustrating. Turning on the displays means tapping a button on the right side of the goggles' frame, a spot that I found was relatively easy to inadvertently hit when packing them away. When I did that, I wound up using precious power on the heads-up display unit, running out of juice before I finished my skiing for the day.

Ski Tracks 99-cent iPhone app captures speed and distance data. Screenshot by Jay Greene/CNET
Whistler Blackcomb Live, a free iPhone app offered by the resort, tracks speed, distance, and more, as well as giving skiers trail maps and information on ski conditions. Screenshot by Jay Greene/CNET

The controller is a bit cumbersome as well. It's a six-button gadget, a little larger than a box of matches, that users can attach around their wrists or on the side of the goggle strap. But six buttons is way too much, particularly for skiers who wear mittens and then need to pull them off to navigate from one screen to another on the display.

And power on the devices is a precious commodity. Most days, I was able to capture all of my runs before the heads-up display shut down. But on those days when I mistakenly tapped the power switch before I hit the slopes, I could only capture a portion of my runs. One night, I jumped out of bed, just as I was drifting off, when I realized I hadn't plugged in the goggles so they could recharge and be ready the next day.

I also learned something about the data when I was able to capture it consistently: It turns out I don't care nearly as much about it as I thought I would. You see, ski data isn't really actionable; there's not that much you can do once you've learned how fast or far you've gone.

It's entirely different from the data I collect when I ride my bicycle and use a cyclometer that tells me how fast I'm going, what my pedaling cadence is, how far I've traveled, and more. That information can help me change my training to improve my performance.

When I ski, I like to go fast. But I don't really feel the need to eke another mile or two per hour out of my performance. And my average speed, another bit of data the goggles capture, is as dependent on who I'm skiing with or the number of moguls on a run as it is on how smoothly I'm shushing. At the end of a day of skiing, it's nice to know how fast and how far I've gone. But honestly, it's not going to change the way I ski the next day. Having the data available at a glance is nice, but not all that important to me.

And it turns out there's a much less expensive way to capture most of the data that matters to me. Before I left for Whistler, I spent 99 cents on iTunes to download Ski Tracks, an app created by Core Coders. It uses the GPS technology in my iPhone to capture all the data I really care about: speed, distance, vertical descent, number of runs, and more. I can't check the data mid-run, but as I said, I didn't really care much about that feature anyway.

And unlike the much more expensive goggles, Ski Tracks was entirely reliable for me. It wasn't even a power hog. At the end of 4.5-hour day, after pausing the app at lunch, my iPhone 4S still had 71 percent of its battery life remaining.

I also tried Whistler Blackcomb Live, an app from the resort that gives skiers details about the weather and ski conditions, as well as trail maps and Webcams. It also offers the ability to track runs, capturing plenty of data, such as speed and distance skied. In addition, it creates a KML file that can be read by Google Earth, letting me relive my day watching a virtual me zip through the mountains on the runs I just skied. Quite nifty. At the end of another 4.5-hour hour day -- during which I also videotaped my son skiing and turned off the app at lunch -- I still had 45 percent of my battery life left.

The price of that app: free. After struggling with $650 goggles to capture much of the same data, that seemed like a particularly good bargain.