Intel’s Chris Croteau and Oakley’s Luiz Dias met with me this week to show off the Radar Pace smart glasses that will hit stores this Saturday, but they were careful to downplay expectations for this new consumer wearable technology.
The smart glasses, designed jointly by Intel and the Luxottica Group (Oakley is a subsidiary), are “really just for runners and cyclers,” they kept pointing out. “We spent a long time trying to understand what kind of wearables athletes want, and designed this for them,” they emphasized. And, they told me several times, “we’re not trying to be Google Glass.”
“We’re concerned about avoiding social awkwardness,” chimed in Scott Smith, a vice president at Luxottica, Oakley’s parent company.
Still, Radar Pace’s little voice in your ear—one that knows exactly what you’re doing and encourages you to do it a little better—has a bit of the flavor of the virtual companion in the movie Her. It’s going to be very tempting to go beyond the questions it expects (Am I on my target pace? How’s my stride length?), to getting a little chattier (I think I know that guy who just ran past. Should I say hello?). In fact, Radar Pace strays into the territory of audio augmented reality, an area with huge potential that’s getting little attention as we obsess about visual AR like Pokémon Go.
And Croteau, in spite of trying to focus on sports training, wouldn’t argue with that perception. “It is indeed AR,” he says. “We are augmenting the reality of an athlete through audio.”
OK, so what is Radar Pace, really? It is a version of Oakley’s Radar sunglasses, long popular with cyclists for their comfort, clarity, and durability. The standard Radar frame has been kitted out with a Bluetooth radio, an accelerometer, a gyroscope, a pressure sensor, a humidity sensor, a proximity sensor, three microphones, earbuds, and an embedded processor that acts as a sensor fusion hub. According to Croteau, who leads Intel’s head-worn device projects in the company’s New Technology Group, all this gear adds just a tiny bit of weight to the standard Radar glasses; he didn’t say how much, but the total mass of the Radar Pace frames is 56 grams. On the software side, Intel is introducing its own natural voice package called Intel Real Speech with this product; it currently understands five languages.
The Oakley Radar Pace smart glasses include a Bluetooth radio, an accelerometer, a gyroscope, a pressure sensor, a humidity sensor, a proximity sensor, three microphones, earbuds, and an embedded processor. Photo: Oakley
The joint design project teaming Intel and Oakley started shortly after the January 2014 CES technology show, says Dias, who is Oakley’s manager for wearable technology. Oakley had made a few forays into wearable electronics, like the Thump MP3 player in 2004, but didn’t have a big hit. Intel CEO Brian Krzanich, giving a keynote at that CES, announced that Intel was going to go big in wearables. (Just about every major consumer electronics company made the same statement; when covering the conference that year, I called it “the CES of the wearable gadget.”)
“We came back from CES,” Dias says, “and started trying to understand what people running and cycling want from wearables. We saw people carrying phones for emergencies, people with earbuds listening to music, and people wearing lots of devices giving data, like wristbands and chest-strap monitors. We didn’t see any interpretation of the data.”
Oakley and Intel began working together in March 2014. “At the time,” Dias says, “we knew we were going to do a coaching product, but we had a blank slate.”
“We did know we wanted the Radar glasses as the form factor, says Croteau. “Radar was a successful product, and it was already out there.”
Intel brought in its team of social scientists, and they held focus groups and mock coaching sessions with athletes and coaches to find out exactly what kind of information coaches would give athletes during their training.
“We really focused on usability—we don’t need to put two pounds of stuff on your head, just what you will use,” Croteau says. That’s how they decided to go audio only.
The final package—the tricked-out sunglasses with two swappable lenses along with the app—will retail for US $449. That’s about $150 more than comparable standard Radar sunglasses, Dias says.
Besides using its own set of sensors to collect data, it connects to third-party fitness tracking products (a clip on your shoe, a heart rate monitor on your chest).
The system gives you updates quantitatively (“Your heart rate is…”), says Dias. But it will also answer more complicated questions, like “Why should I run faster up this hill?” It will also connect you to your music library or agents like Siri, for answers to key questions like “I’m almost done with my run. Where’s the nearest Jamba Juice?” An Intel executive is reportedly already using the noise-canceling microphone array to conduct conference calls while biking to work.
I tested it out briefly in the demo room [see video]. The Radar Pace glasses were indeed hugely comfortable, and the voice interface responsive enough to be usable. My only beef is that there’s not a version that can accommodate those of us who need corrective lenses and don’t wear contacts.
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.