Information overload?

Wearable sports technology raises safety concerns

Matt Richtel / New York Times News Service /

Published Apr 24, 2013 at 05:00AM

Oakley, the eyewear company, makes a $600 ski goggle that comes with a warning in the package: Do not operate product while skiing.

It is an admonition that should be taken with a grain of salt, said Chris Petrillo, a product manager at the company. Of course, he said, the digital goggles are meant for skiing and snowboarding.

“Welcome to the world of lawyers and litigation,” he said.

But maybe the lawyers are on to something.

Safety advocates say the concept of high-tech displays for goggles — and for other sports eyewear — is information overload run amok, particularly when people are using them at high speeds.

Yet Oakley, based in Foothill Ranch, Calif., is one of a handful of sports eyewear companies betting that thrill seekers and athletes crave the equivalent of a cockpit dashboard while skiing, snowboarding, cycling and running.

The companies are in the vanguard of the next wave of personal technology, called wearable computing, which promises to further shrink the barrier between users and the information they seek.

The goggles made by Oakley, and similarly high-tech pairs made by competitors, have a display in the lens that shows changing speed and altitude, and can display incoming text messages.

The goggles are tributes to miniaturization, equipped with global positioning technology and wireless Bluetooth to stream calls and music from phones. They can even be configured to show videos that are being shot in real time from a camera attached to the top of the lens or embedded in it.

The consumer base is small but growing, perhaps several hundred thousand people using various forms of high-tech eyewear, people in the industry say. But they also say this is the future, and some customers swear by them as performance-enhancing gadgets — as long as users are careful.

Harry Puterbaugh, 57, a farmer from Peoria, Ill., and his wife and 13- and 14-year-old daughters, use high-tech goggles made by Zeal Optics of Boulder, Colo., on ski trips to Aspen and surrounding slopes in Colorado. Puterbaugh likes being able to track how many runs and vertical feet he has skied.

He has another pair of goggles, one with a built-in camera that lets him take videos of his action, or his daughters, as they tear down the mountain. A little image in the corner of his eye allows him to see what is being captured, but he said he learned quickly to ignore the image.

His daughters have learned to be cautious too.

“When my girls first started using them, they would get in trouble because they were watching their speed and not paying attention to what they were doing,” he said. “They would fall, but you only do that once before you realize it’s not a good thing to do.”

Besides, he said of the little screen, “once you get used to it, you can pick it up without having to take focus off the mountain itself.”

Therein lies the rub. Safety advocates say it is not possible, as seductive as it might sound, to take in simultaneously two streams of information: the real-life action, and the virtual performance data.

“You’re effectively skiing blind; you’re going to miss a mogul or hit somebody,” said David Strayer, a neuroscientist at the University of Utah, in Salt Lake City, who for more than two decades has studied the science of attention and distraction. Even the briefest glance at the information takes over a skier’s field of vision and focus, he said.