I was invited by Marcus Weller, CEO of Skully Helmets to visit their headquarters for a private session to check out the Skully AR-1 Augmented Reality Motorcycle Helmet. What I didn’t know was that by the end of the session, Marcus would invite me to be one of the official AR-1 Beta Testers. Of course I was thrilled. Getting the chance to be on the front end of developing a new technology that has far-reaching consequences is an exciting thing—one that I have been a party to many times in my career as a Silicon Valley product development professional. So it is with this context that I approach the AR-1. Not only as a motorcycle enthusiast who rides every day, but as a veteran developer of hardware and software systems that has ranged from wireless scuba diving computers, to THX-certified loudspeakers, innovative digital storage devices, and home automation systems to name a few. What follows are my first impressions of the helmet and my perceptions on the impact it will have on riders. Here is my best attempt at chronicling what it was like to try on the AR-1 for the first time and experience the impact of what Skully has invented.
After chatting in the Skully offices that are located in San Francisco’s SOMA district, we headed downstairs to where Marcus’ Ducati was parked next to a table draped with black cloth that held a large protective case. By this time my mind was racing with anticipation of what wearing the AR-1 would be like. Six months ago, I heard Marcus speak at the Piston & Chain motorcycle club and saw a prototype of the helmet [see post]. But no one was allowed to try the prototype on at that early stage, so my preconceptions of what the experience would be like were all over the place.
When Marcus first took the AR-1 out of the case, I was at first struck with how “normal” it looked. It was attractive, for sure, but it was not at all odd which I attributed to the understated all-satin black color scheme. I liked this, because one thing I would not want is to have a helmet that looked like it was festooned with expensive electronics. The moment of truth then came when Marcus asked me what size helmet I wore. Like many riders, I opted for my current 2XL helmet size because it was more comfortable and the next size down was too tight. However, after seeing videos online on the importance of having a properly sized helmet, I have always wondered whether I was sacrificing safety for comfort by choosing that size. And I was also worried that I would not fit the AR-1 that was handed to me because it looked pretty compact.
As I put on the AR-1, it slipped over my big noggin with ease and I was happy that it’s shape did not result in undue pressure on my forehead like some leading helmet brands have done. The padding seemed luxurious and the fit was excellent. I usually use a modular flip-up style, so adopting a non-modular full-face would be a big change for me. It had a quick-release strap system, but frankly, I was so interested in the optics, I hardly even noticed.
The display was already activated when I put the helmet on and it seemed to be in a mode that transitioned between the rear-facing camera and a navigation screen. Because this was just a first experience session, it didn’t really matter to me what was on the display. I was just fascinated with—and amazed by—the brightness, deep saturated colors and sharpness of the text on this little reticle that sat at my 4:00 o’clock in front of the right eye. As I got over the initial shock of feeling like Tony Stark inside his Iron Man suit, I settled down and started to evaluate what Skully calls their “advanced situational awareness system.”
Skully’s goal for the AR-1 as stated on their website is to “show navigation and blind spot data, allowing you to stay focused on the most important part of your ride – the road.” It’s easy to get embroiled in the technology and whether a rider CAN effectively use a heads up display (more correctly stated as a Helmet Mounted Display or HMD). The more important question is really whether a rider SHOULD use an HMD and WHAT it is actually displaying. Unlike the myriad of information presented to Iron Man, Skully is focusing the AR-1 rider experience primarily on a near-180° view behind the motorcycle and turn-by-turn directions. Both of these features are aimed at preventing the rider from taking their attention away from the road ahead to check mirrors, look over their shoulder, or down at their GPS.
I have heard and read some concerns from people who worry that the display would distract and thereby endanger the rider. I had precisely the opposite feeling when I donned the AR-1 for the first time. The HMD reticle is positioned far enough to the side and low enough to allow sighting over it just as if you were riding with a standard helmet. Looking at the display is akin to looking down at the motorcycle’s instruments with one huge exception: you don’t need to tip your head downwards. I perceive this “heads-up” posture as the first aspect of Skully’s augmented reality: i.e. you no longer need to take your eyes away from the road. The experience is further enhanced when you realize that you can see through the bright little display. When I put my hand behind the image, I could see my fingers and my brain registered that there was no interruption in my vision. It was then that I realized the display felt immersive and the opposite of a distraction.
One very important attribute of the AR-1 is that you can see the HMD reticle equally as well with the visor down or up. This is something I will have to verify under different riding conditions, but I found little difference in the readability of the display either way. For me this was a game changer since I like to ride with my visor open most of the time and with sunglasses or clear safety glasses underneath. But I may change my mind about how I ride because the AR-1 comes with an elecrochromic visor. I’m trying hard to be cool and professional writing about my experienced with the AR-1 but I just have to say, IT HAS A FREAKIN’ ELECTROCHROMIC VISOR!!! One push of a button: dark visor. Another push: clear visor. Although this has nothing to do with the true underlying value of an augmented reality display helmet, it is an extremely cool feature that is very handy.
When I ride, I ride paranoid. I don’t only think that drivers can’t see me. I think that they can see me and are just waiting to take their shot at killing me. It’s a sad, paranoid world inside my helmet, but it has helped me avoid any altercations with cagers in well over 50,000 miles of riding. The downside of riding like this is that I am constantly checking my mirrors to see who is around me or coming up on me too fast. And like the crash Marcus experienced that was the original impetus for founding Skully, I always worry that in the interest of preventing someone behind from hitting me, I will inadvertently crash into the person in front of me when they slam on the brakes the same moment I decide to look over my shoulder. This leads me to what I perceive is the second aspect of Skully’s augmented reality: the rider has complete situational awareness at all times. This may seem to be the same as not needing to take your eyes off the road, but it’s not. It’s the mental picture a rider has at any particular moment of what is happening around their bike and how it affects their safety. The photo above is not the view from the AR-1’s rearview camera, but it is close. I stitched it together from two Google street view photos based upon what I saw behind me while standing in front of Skully’s building. I was able to see both of those buildings in the AR-1’s rearview image and I was only standing about 60 feet away across the street. The width of the view is amazing. And the way I can describe the spherical distortion from the wide angle lens is that it is…just right. I’ll know better from more testing of the AR-1, but from what I perceived standing on the sidewalk, the AR-1 would allow me to know who was behind me and who was in both blind spots, and who was coming up on me too fast.
Another important thing to understand about the situational awareness that the Skully AR-1 may be able to impart is that it could be like the difference between video and still images in your brain. When you take a fleeting glance at your mirrors or over your shoulder, it’s as though your brain took a snapshot of the situation the moment you glanced there. But with the AR-1’s ability to allow you to keep looking forward, your brain and peripheral vision may be able to see continuous motion from the cars behind and to the sides of you in the HMD reticle. This is more like having a video playing in your brain of what’s going on around you while you are still watching the road ahead. I would surmise that this effect is enhanced even more so at night where the motion of headlights tells the story around you.
Of course without extensive road testing, this is all just conjecture. But I am starting to believe that the value of wearing a Skully AR-1 will not be its ability to provide directions, or play music, or make phone calls, or even see behind you. And I don’t believe it will be a feeling of being even more connected (which is what we want to get away from by riding in the first place). I believe that riding with a Skully AR-1 will be a completely new and immersive experience. One where you can actually enjoy yourself more, because…
• You already know all of the threats in your immediate environment
• You don’t need to fumble with the iPhone or GPS on your dash
• You can focus on enjoying the road ahead
• And you can use enhanced features to stay as connected or disconnected as you wish
So I see why Skully calls this an “augmented reality motorcycle helmet.” It hold the promise to provide access to information and control of electronics in a way that helps you focus on the ride and enhance safety while keeping it real. And isn’t that what riding a motorcycle is all about?
I want to thank Marcus Weller for inviting me to beta test the AR-1. History may show that his innovation and the hard work of the Skully team could be the greatest enhancement to rider safety since the invention of the helmet. But the promise of Skully is so much more than just safety. The enhanced riding experience that will be made possible through the software platform Skully is building will eventually transform motorcycling. While technology has marched forward and created motorcycles with electric motors, variable valve timing, fly-by-wire throttles, and onboard diagnostics, helmet design has remained virtually the same since the 1970s except for incremental improvements in comfort and impact resistance. Today’s leading helmet manufacturers should be ashamed that it takes an innovative upstart like Skully to bring true innovation and enhanced safety to the riding experience while they have invested their profits in new color schemes. I have no doubt that the eyes of the helmet manufacturers are focused on Skully’s every move. It will be up to us in the riding community to provide as much support to Skully as we can in this David vs. Goliath struggle. Stay tuned for more as my discovery of the Skully AR-1 moves forward.
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All photos © 2014 Peter Radsliff