Design and Tech

Smart Shades Are About to Get a Whole Lot Better

Intel backs heads-up displays with its purchase of Recon Instruments. The likely winner of the deal? Oakley and other optics brands looking to pursue HUD technology.

Smart Shades Are About to Get a Whole Lot Better

Recon Jet eyewear provides instant data during exercise from a built-in GPS and motion tracker, plus wearable sensors and smartphones. Photo: Recon Instruments

Earlier this week, Intel bought Recon Instruments, which sells heads-up-display technology for goggles to companies like Oakley and Smith. It also makes the Jet, a pair of futuristic shades that sync with a phone to relay stats like heart rate and power.   

The purchase (which rumors put around  $175 million), takes a tiny tech startup and infuses it with the backing of billions of dollars in R&D. More importantly, it might improve HUDs to the point where people will actually wear them.

Intel has technology that could help push the Jet—which has hit multiple setbacks and only went on sale in May, 18 months after it debuted to the press—into the mainstream. This past January, Intel announced its plug-and-play “System on a Chip,” called the Curie module. This is is a circuit board specifically designed for wearables. It’s minuscule, about half the size of a pencil eraser, and it includes an accelerometer, gyroscope, and on-board memory, communicates via Bluetooth, and has specifically designed programming to improve battery life.

That last bit is key. Big battery packs are one of the biggest issues wearable makers face. Take the Jet, which is actually relatively easy to use and comfortable to wear, because the battery and camera sit on either side of your head, counter-balancing one another. But it’s still cumbersome compared to normal sunglasses and looks goofy, and would benefit from a smaller battery pack. 

Shrinking this power source, and the hardware, has been Recon’s mission all along, and it happens to dovetail with Intel’s goal of being not just inside computers, but inside wearables, too. Curie lets Intel be that one-stop-shop solution for wearables startups and larger players.

So what does Intel get out of the deal?

The company wants to get its chips in wearables, and this seems like an easy way in. When Intel announced Curie, it also announced a partnership with Oakley and with Oakley’s parent company, Luxottica. Around the same time, Oakley said it would deliver its own wearables in the latter half of 2015.

Oakley already has Recon technology running in its goggles. Intel already has a stake in Recon. Ergo Recon is likely the brains behind the forthcoming Oakley product. We presume this is the first step toward more wearables from both Oakley and from other eyewear labels (like Ray-Ban and Michael Kors) under Luxottica.

While Recon’s strength is clearly in technology, it doesn’t have the style cred of an Oakley. In fact, if there’s one steady critique about HUD wearables, whether we're talking Jet or Google Glass, it’s that they’re ugly. This might be about to change dramatically.

Bottom line: this marriage lets Recon do what it does best while Intel cuts deals with other manufacturers that enable the wearable technology to get better and more usable. 

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