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.

Seth Rosenblatt Former Senior Writer / News
Senior writer Seth Rosenblatt covered Google and security for CNET News, with occasional forays into tech and pop culture. Formerly a CNET Reviews senior editor for software, he has written about nearly every category of software and app available.
Seth Rosenblatt
6 min read
Watch this: Taking the Skully heads-up display helmet for a spin

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.