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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AR-1 and all things moto:

All photos © 2014 Peter Radsliff 


Ride Map: Mount Hamilton

Bonnie, MyConnie and “Bocci” atop Mount Hamilton

Towering above Silicon Valley, majestic Mount Hamilton is a place I had never visited even though I’ve lived in the San Francisco Bay Area all my life. The tallest of three mountains that rim the bay, at 4,196 feet Mount Hamilton bests Mount Diablo at 3,864 and Mount Tamalpais at 2,574 (see earlier post) feet elevation. With the weather being unseasonably warm and dry on December 31, my brother-in-law and riding buddy, “Bocci” and I decided to get one more ride in before the end of 2011.

We both live in San Mateo and saw on Google Maps that this ride was only 60 miles one-way. “No problem!” I said, worrying about being home before dark, “It should take us no time at all to get there and back.” Little did I know that we would encounter some of the longest sections of twisties in the Bay Area riding up to the summit.

We took the slightly longer, but much more scenic I-280 freeway around the bottom of the bay to where it morphs into I-680 and then exited on Alum Rock Avenue. Only a few miles up the road was the turn for Highway 130, the road to Mount Hamilton. The road was similar to those in many California foothills with a few tight turns interspersed with longer sweeping curves in between. What is deceiving about this ride is that you first need to go up and over a first set of mountains before having a fairly long stretch of road prior to climbing up to Mount Hamilton peak.

This first set of mountains provides some incredible views of the East Bay, but there aren’t any vista point pull-offs to make it easy to stop and take photos. Much of the road lacks guard rails and there are precipitous cliffs at the road’s edge, so this is a good road to practice caution and have your speed under control. Last year, I came partway up this road and nearly ran into a flock of turkeys! What is it with turkeys and motorcycles? This makes three times I’ve nearly hit the stupid birds wandering across well-traveled highways! A full grown coyote also deftly crossed the road well ahead of our bikes as we came down the mountain. Suffice it to say that this is a “heads up” ride more suited to intermediate and above riders rather than novices.

The first set of mountains gave way to the beautiful and intriguing Joseph D. Grant County Park and Halls Valley Lake, known for its bass, catfish and crappie fishing. This enticed me to do further exploring on another day, but Bocci and I kept our goal in mind and pressed onwards towards Mount Hamilton. We traveled onward and worried that we might have missed the turnoff, but then noticed the prominent observatory buildings on the mountain peak far above beckoning us to continue.

Lick Observatory atop Mount Hamilton

Lick Observatory atop Mount Hamilton

Having our goal in sight didn’t mean it was close by. We traveled another fifteen minutes and only then found the Mount Hamilton turnoff sign which noted it was still seven twisty steep miles before reaching the summit. We came across many ambitious bicyclists along the road and were passed by a number of lightweight dirt bike riders festooned with helmet cams. Eventually, we arrived at the summit and went alongside the observatory building to its parking lot and were not disappointed by this the most spectacular view of the Bay Area.

Lick Observatory atop Mount Hamilton

The Lick Observatory

Mount Hamilton panorama

The view from Mount Hamilton

Above is a panorama I shot and stitched together to give just a partial view from the summit. We were surprised to see another panorama in a photo inside the observatory that showed Yosemite’s Half Dome as seen from Mount Hamilton! Since Yosemite is a four-hour drive away, you don’t imagine that this elegant dome could be seen from your own Bay Area backyard, but it can! Here is a photo I clipped from the web showing California’s most famous peak.

Half Dome from Mount Hamilton

Half Dome as seen from Mount Hamilton

More amazing facts were found inside the Lick Observatory, such as…
– The Lick Observatory was built in 1887
– It was the first permanently occupied mountain-top observatory in the world
– In 1939, because of a nighttime fog that engulfed the summit, an Air Force A-17 attack plane crashed into the main building (only the 2 pilots were killed)
Suffice it to say that you could spend a lot of time visiting and enjoying the Observatory. We didn’t see that the telescopes were available to visit, and we didn’t have time to ask to see if that would be possible at all. On my next visit, I’m going to find out ahead of time whether it is possible to visit at night and participate in a star gazing event. What a wonderful gem to have hidden in plain view of where we live and work! Here is a photo taken in the direction of Mount Hamilton from my office in Sunnyvale March 2006 with the snow level falling down to 2,000 feet!

Snow on Mount Hamilton and surrounding foothills - March 2006

Coming down off the mountain, a bicyclist drafted behind Bocci the whole way! I actually felt pressured to speed up because he wasn’t 20 feet behind my brother-in-law’s Triumph Bonneville and no matter what we did, we couldn’t shake him until arriving on flat ground. It was amazing that he could keep up and not slide out in the many curves that had handfuls of gravel in them. I would label him an idiot if he didn’t show such nerve and skill.

My final comments to anyone reading this post is “do this ride!” And go early enough to spend time taking lots of photos and poking around Lick Observatory. If you are really into astronomy, see what public programs are available for nighttime star gazing (if any), but don’t attempt this road at night on a bike.

Learn More:
Mount Hamilton Web Cam
Time lapse video of the day of our ride
Lick Observatory on Wikipedia 

Ride Map: Click here for Google Map

Ride Report:
– Date: December 31, 2011
– Roads: A well paved road with sections of fresh paving, generally smooth with intermittent sections that are not well-cambered
– Scenery: Mountains, canyons, valleys and a unique view of Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area
– Weather: Perfect for New Year’s Eve: mid-50s on the mountain top, no wind or rain.
– Ride: Tight, steep twisties with precipitous cliffs at road’s edge. Be careful and ride within your limits!
– Challenge: Intermediate to advanced (doable, but not fun for beginners)
– Food: Bring your own for during the ride, but there are vending machines with drinks and snacks at Lick Observatory
– Gas: As this is not far from civilization, gas should not be a problem. But, there is no gas available en route, so make sure your tank is filled
– Rating: 5-stars (out of 5) for overall enjoyment, although the ride itself was challenging and less fun than a romp in the Sierras
Additional Fun: Inside Lick Observatory is a gift shop and U.S. Post Office. Bring or buy some post cards and drop them in the box so you can delivered them postmarked from atop Mount Hamilton. This is a fun activity that so many people have forgotten to take advantage of.

Additional Ride Photos: