Preview: Skully AR-1 Augmented Reality Motorcycle Helmet

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.

What's in that black box?

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.

CEO Marcus Weller and the Skully Helmets AR-1 Augmented Reality Motorcycle Helmet

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.

First try on

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.

Looking over and through

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.”

Tony Stark looking through the Iron Man heads up display

photo: © 2008 Marvel Studios/Paramount Pictures

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.

Looking over and through the AR-1 HUD optics

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.

Bitchin' electro-chromic visor

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.

Similar to Skully's Rear View

photo: Google street view

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.

Approximate angle of Skully AR-1 rearview camera

Approximate angle of AR-1 rearview camera – photo: Google Maps

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 


Preview: Skully P1 Heads-Up Display Helmet

If you haven’t heard about the biggest buzz in the motorcycle industry yet, it’s the Skully P1 heads-up display helmet, and it’s only a number of months away from being a reality.
I was invited by Marcus Weller, CEO of Skully Helmets to attend his presentation on
Dec. 5, 2013 at the Piston & Chain motorcycle club in San Francisco to learn more about the P1 and what Skully is trying to achieve.

Skully Helmet and CEO Marcus Weller

Marcus Weller, CEO of Skully Helmets and the Skully P1 heads-up display helmet

The evening started with a casual gathering of club members at the Piston & Chain clubhouse/garage located on Folsom at 9th Street in San Francisco’s SOMA district. Until this event, I didn’t know about the Piston & Chain club and I was impressed by the number of vintage bikes arrayed against both walls at their spacious digs. I was greeted warmly by co-owners Matt and Erica plus the other members of the club and enjoyed pizza and beer prior to the manufacturer’s presentation which Piston & Chain host often.
( click to enlarge photos )

After Marcus arrived, he placed a shrouded object on the main table in front of a projection screen. The crowd quieted and listened with rapt attention to Marcus telling the story of how he literally dreamed up the idea for the helmet.

In 2011, Marcus was riding in Barcelona, Spain and he had an accident. While following a red Smart car into a turn, he quickly looked over his shoulder to check merging traffic. When he turned his head back forwards, the Smart car had stopped in its tracks, resulting in locked brakes and a rear-end smash. Marcus told us he wasn’t seriously injured, but that it left an emotional scar.

He then told us that about six months later, at 3:00 A.M. on a Wednesday, he had a dream where he saw ride imagery and GPS maps floating in front of him. Upon waking up, he pulled out his laptop and searched for what was available and where he might buy it. He found that there was really nothing on the market that matched his dream. That, he said, was the impetus for the Skully P1 helmet which he then unveiled on the table in front of us.

Skully Helmet and Bikes

Marcus explained that Skully was trying to create the world’s most intelligent helmet centered around three core features:

1. Skully Synapse
Skully Synapse is the helmet’s intelligent heads-up display (HUD) platform built upon an “Android spine”—software terminology that I’ll refer to again below. Although heads-up display technology has been around for decades it has never been integrated into a motorcycle helmet in the way Skully is intending. Marcus showed a video that presented his vision and concept for the display:

He went on to say that the display looks as though it is floating out in front of the helmet at about arm’s length and that it can be seen with the visor closed or open. Unfortunately, Marcus didn’t open the P1 helmet—which he characterized as a working prototype—to show any of the optical gadgetry. Nor did he allow anyone to try it on, relating a story of a prospective investor accidentally snapping off the projection mechanism only 24 hours before a big partner meeting. So I cannot report any actual performance from the Skully P1 from this preview event. What I did find out was that value-added software functionality, such as turn-by-turn directions, wasn’t the only benefit envisioned for the P1’s heads-up display.

2. Skully “Ninja” Display
Marcus likened the task of riding a motorcycle to being surrounded by a bunch of ninjas and trying to keep from being attacked by whichever one you weren’t watching. Not a bad analogy considering all of the cagers I see texting on the road every day. The Skully P1 helmet has a rear-facing camera with a super-wide 180° view. Marcus emphasized that this would lead to a radical improvement of visibility for the rider. He mentioned how he wore the prototype in his car when testing and that he could see not only out of the back windows, but out of both sets of side windows as well. This provided him greatly improved situational awareness which he mentioned was one of the high-level benefits of heads-up displays in fighter aircraft, aimed at giving pilots a decisive edge over their enemy.

Skully Helmet - Rear

The Skully P1 180° rear-facing camera with electronics and rechargeable batteries are housed in this stylish, aerodynamic shroud that is engineered to snap off in the event of
an accident to not impart additional rotational stresses on the rider’s head.

Many people at Piston & Chain questioned whether the heads-up display would be distracting and Marcus addressed their fears by presenting his concept of seeing all of the ninjas simultaneously. He said that instead of having to look over your shoulder and verify that the view from your mirror was correct and that there was no car in your blind spot, YOU WOULD ALREADY KNOW. This was because you could see 180° behind you and to the sides, removing the need to turn your head and take your eyes away from the road ahead of you.

This system reminds me of a motorcycle-specific version of an aftermarket panoramic rearview car mirror. I have driven a car with one of these before, and the situational awareness you gain from it is amazing. I don’t understand why these have not been integrated into cars by the automobile manufacturers because in my opinion, they greatly improve safety. But they really need to integrated into the driving experience and not just bolted onto an existing mirror. The Skully P1 aims to provide this level of improved situational awareness and safety, but with a much slicker user experience that integrates features other than just an expanded rear view.

Panoramic Rearview Mirror

Panoramic rearview mirrors never gained much popularity in cars, but the Skully 180° rearview heads-up display could change all that for motorcyclists.  

3. Android Open API-Based System
Marcus went on to emphasize that Skully is building an intelligent helmet software platform that will have an open API (application programming interface) with SDK (software development kit). For those less knowledgable about software systems, this is analogous to Apple’s iOS operating system that runs on the iPhone and iPad hardware but allows third-party developers to create custom applications to bring additional functionality to the user experience. For Apple users, this has resulted in the availability of over one million Apps to satisfy every need and want, from providing turn-by-turn directions to playing Candy Crush Saga. For motorcyclists, the Skully platform could mean apps for navigation, travel information, vlogging, communications, or a thousand other features. With minimal integration from motorcycle manufacturers, it would be easy to imagine displays incorporating instrument cluster data, engine diagnostics…even crash avoidance.

Skully has chosen Google’s Android software platform for all of this software wizardry to make their helmet “intelligent.” But even though the helmet may operate using an Android spine, it will allow both Android-based phones and Apple iPhones to run apps that utilize the system. That is, if the community of developers decide to build apps with novel functionality providing added value to motorcyclists, and profit to the developers.

There is always a chicken-and-egg conundrum with platforms like those envisioned by Skully. Developers will come once they see enough users to make it worth the cost of their development dollars. Likewise, motorcyclists may wait to adopt the Skully P1 until it has enough apps and proven value for their dollars. But in this case, it’s a pretty sure bet that the allure of the technology, safety and cool-factor will provide significant demand by motorcyclists. Skully’s 40,000+ beta tester requests have already proven that. Plus, Skully’s decision to leverage the Android toolset for their helmet platform while encouraging apps for both Google and iOS-based phones will please the mobile app developer community. It’s a pretty sure bet that as long as Skully nails the user-experience and delivers a quality helmet that is priced right, riders will line up in droves to check out, and then buy, the Skully P1.

Build it and they will come

Marcus Weller’s field of dreams: he will build it, helmet buyers and app developers will come. With the P1’s core HUD functionality of 180° rear view, plus navigation and phone control, this motorcyclist believes in Skully’s field of dreams. Other benefits from enhanced apps will arrive over time and be gravy for P1 owners. 

Marcus wouldn’t comment on projected pricing for the P1, but he did offer that he was committed to “not pricing it out of people’s reach” while still trying to “make enough money to keep innovating.” Skully is partnering with a major helmet manufacturer to produce the P1 with a “no scrimp design” ethos. Marcus said that he is planning to ship the P1 by “the upcoming riding season” but that this was a very aggressive schedule, and he allowed that this could mean that only the beta helmets might ship “at the very least.

Marcus Weller presented himself as a very confident knowledgeable and likable rider, innovator and entrepreneur. Clearly he has the chops as the lead salesman for the company. The vision he presented for creating “the world’s most intelligent helmet” to prevent accidents and enhance the motorcycling experience was compelling. The motorcycle helmet industry has been ripe for disruption for years. And with more people on two-wheels than ever before, the time is right for Skully Helmets be that disruptor.

I look at the Skully P1 not only as a motorcyclist and writer, but also as the CEO of a software development company myself. Here are my takeaways from Marcus Weller’s presentation and why a Skully P1 will on my head in the near future:

• Spidey-sense:
Who wouldn’t pay a few hundred dollars more for a helmet if it gave you the equivalent of Spiderman’s spider-sense? If I can know that a car in my blind spot is going to veer into my path before it hits me, that’s well worth the investment. And, I don’t even need to get bitten by a radioactive spider!

• A more immersive riding experience: As someone who worked in the scuba diving industry for 17 years, I know all about immersive experiences. That’s why motorcycling is so great: the wind, sun, g-forces…even the rain. Riding allows you to experience the full measure of living. The Skully P1 and potential for new apps will integrate and enhance the riding experience in ways we can barely imagine. 

• Taking motorcycling to the next level: I may be getting ahead of myself with this prediction, but I believe the Skully platform could help advance motorcycling to an entirely new level of safety and enjoyment. Think what might be possible when you combine sensors, cameras, software and a heads-up display? Just imagine: crash prediction and avoidance, new rider training while riding, group ride tracking, low tire pressure alerts…the list of potential benefits are almost endless.

What I also believe is that a P1 helmet could be the next “must have” for every motorcyclist and that the Skully company and its visionary leader, Marcus Weller, are the ones to watch. Good luck, Marcus (oh, and please don’t forget my beta test application). ::

CEO Marcus Weller and his prototype P1 Skully heads-up display motorcycle helmet Marcus Unveils Skully Helmet Piston and Chain motorcycle club members chatting with Skully Helmets CEO Marcus Weller Skully Crew Member Marcus Weller and the Skully Crew

Skully Helmet - B&W