Motorcycle helmets have changed a lot over the years. They're better looking, lighter, more comfortable, quieter and, most importantly, safer than they were a decade or two ago. The good ones are a hell of a lot more expensive, too, but one thing they aren't is smarter. You can easily spend upwards of $500 to $1,000 for a premium-branded helmet. For that, you'll get something functionally equivalent to a $99 no-name special.
With seemingly everything else in our lives offering some semblance of connectivity and at least a notional definition of "smart," it's surprising that helmets are still so remedial. Thankfully, a number of startups are trying to fill the void, and one of the most promising is Nuviz. Why? They've actually shipped functional product, the $700 Nuviz Head-Up Display, or HUD. Nuviz promises to make any helmet smart. But will it make them smart enough?
Nuviz mounts on the front of your helmet using a pad of double-sided adhesive. You stick a plate onto the chinbar of your lid, then run a pair of small earpieces and a microphone into your helmet. The earpieces and mic slot in easily enough, but I was surprised to find that the plate was quite difficult to mount.
It's roughly two inches square, too big for the first helmet I tried, an AGV Corsa. This helmet has a wide chinbar, but it's deeply creased, and there was simply no way to fit the Nuviz plate on there securely. So, I went to my other helmet, a Shoei RF-1200. On this one I had the opposite problem: The chinbar is slightly concave, and so I still couldn't make the plate attach securely.
So, I dug out my old, smelly Shoei RF-1100, which has a more subtle shape than its successor. Finally, here was a helmet that had a flat enough surface for me to mount the Nuviz in a place where I could actually see it. And that's an important qualifier.
Nuviz uses a reflected display to project an image towards your eye. The effect is of a display that's floating in space a few feet in front of you, much like the Google Glass of yore. That's good for eye relief, but it also means the positioning has to be quite precise for you to get maximum contrast. The end of Nuviz does pivot and rotate slightly so that you don't have to have it in the absolute perfect position, but it does have to be close.
Once I had that sorted, I had to contend with the simple matter of mounting the Nuviz controller onto my bike. The preferred way is to stick a mounting bracket, again with double-sided tape, onto the side of your left grip. The system does come with a second mounting bracket if you just want to stick it on your tank or any other flat surface, but curiously the kit doesn't include enough mounting hardware for you to use the grip mount on one bike and the tank mount on another.
The Nuviz's primary, default functionality is as a heads-up speedometer. It displays the speed limit as well as your current speed. On one hand this is quite nice, if only because the speedos on most motorcycles are notoriously inaccurate. However, given the position of Nuviz on your helmet, down low and to the right, I actually found myself having to look further from the road to see how fast I was going than if I simply looked straight down at the bike's own gauge cluster.
Whether this is true for you depends on what kind of bike you ride. If you're riding a sportbike, Nuviz might actually be more of an eyes-down device than head-up.
Nuviz will also do navigation, but anyone used to services like Google Maps will immediately be disappointed. All destinations must be predefined through the Nuviz app, and while you can create custom routes with waypoints, which is potentially great, there's no way to speak a new address or, indeed, get re-routed because of traffic.
A Nuviz representative tells me that requesting destinations by voice is coming in a future update, but for now you'll have to pull over, take out your phone and enter in the address for your new destination.
Navigation does work independently of your phone, maps are cached offline in the device itself, so no worries if you're riding somewhere without a data connection. That's potentially great, but given you still need to use the phone to enter in destinations and create routes, that offline value is a bit limited unless you're planning everything in advance.
Nuviz will also play music on your phone, but on Android at least it'll only play or pause whatever you had going before your ride. Nuviz won't launch any of your media apps or indeed let you select a playlist.
You can make calls, but only to predefined contacts. Need to call Aunt Millie to let her know you're running 20 minutes late? Hope you remembered to tag her in the app before you left. And you'd better remember to shout, too. Volume level of the Nuviz headset is poor, and the noise cancelation of the microphone also isn't great. Call quality pales in comparison to the best from helmet intercom systems like Sena.
Finally, there's the camera, perhaps the Nuviz's most useful feature. Neither the eight-megapixel still photos nor the 1080p video will win you any awards for contrast or color, but images are clear and bright enough to spot the license plate number on that jackass who cut you off on the way home, which is really what's most important.
And battery life is pretty solid, too. Nuviz says the large, 3,250 mAh battery will give you eight hours of moderate usage. Even with a lot of video recording and other use my bike ran out of gas before that battery ran out of juice.
I really like the idea of the Nuviz, and given how much good helmets cost it really feels like they should do more for you than just protect your noggin. Sadly, though, this particular attempt to add more ability to your lid comes up well short.
For $699, the functionality here is slim, and what there is often fails to be genuinely useful. Promised software updates should go some way to addressing that point, but it'll still leave a very expensive device that's far too large.
When Nuviz is half the cost, half the size and can do twice as much I look forward to reviewing it again. Until then, if you try calling me when I'm on a ride, please go ahead and leave a message. I'll get back to you when I'm done getting lost.