ZBoard Motorized Skateboard Courtesy of ZBoard
Outdoor gear tech has been playing its part in history ever since George Mallory died on Everest with a broken altimeter. But these days, manufacturers are packing more and more technology into smaller and smaller gadgets. Thanks to Gordon Moore, you'll likely find yourself on the trail with more processing power than NORAD wielded a few years ago. But is more always better? Here are 10 examples of gear that are pushing the boundaries so far they beg the question: when does technology go from a boon to a distraction?
A Kickstarter success story, the ZBoard exceeded its $10,000 goal by a factor of nearly 30. One thing the board does right is it gets the technology out of your way. The user interface is simple: lean, and it goes — up to 18 miles per hour. Though the manufacturer does not recommend using the ZBoard for tricks, it's suited well to commuters, with a 400 watt electric motor and a range up to 10 miles. So while the board features some smart technology, with regenerative braking and force-sensing foot pads, its simplicity sets an example for other gear: let the machine do the thinking.
BioLite Camp Stove Matthew Land
The BioLite could almost be considered low-tech — after all, it runs on wood. But to make an efficient camp stove that consumes sticks and other organic material required some engineering prowess and non-traditional thinking. A copper thermoelectric generator pierces the stove's shell, and siphons heat energy from the fire into a fan and a USB charger. The result: a hot-burning wood fire that consumes twigs like a furnace.
But BioLite wasn't founded just to give campers an alternative to white gas. The HomeStove operates similarly, but was designed for developing nations where food is primarily cooked over wood fires. The fan helps the biomass (wood or charcoal) burn more completely, increasing efficiency and reducing smoke emissions.
Shimano Di2 Electric Shifters Jake Orness
On July 1, Shimano announced the latest version of their Di2 electric shifters, the Ultergra 6870. Though electric shifters rank high on the "why would you need this?" scale, they do offer some advantages. Primarily, it's about precision — tap the shifter and it knows exactly where to situate the chain, though the new version even drops weight over comparable cable shifters. The front derailleur will microadjust to avoid rubbing when the chain crosses several gears, and it can also shift the front and back at the same time. But these have been hashed out. As The Cycle Life points out, the next-generation Di2s make a different important technological step: they come with programmable software, including firmware updates. Because it's programmable, there's also the opportunity to expand the hardware, adding shift buttons to other spots besides the hoods.
Recon Jet Courtesy of Recon
Last month, Recon (makers of the MOD Live heads-up-display for ski and snowboard goggles) released Jet, a wearable HUD targeted at cyclists. It's wireless (ANT+ and Bluetooth) and bulky, and attached to a pair of sunglasses. It's like Google Glass for speed freaks, and it will certainly be fraught with some of the same privacy issues, thanks to its HD camera.
But with Jet, Recon one-ups even Shimano's programmable Di2: It's built on an open platform, allowing developers to build apps to go along with it, expanding its basic capabilities however they see fit. But at least for now, with integrated polarized lenses, Jet could be limited by its own hardware — it's only available as a complete unit, meaning you can't pair it with your favorite shades.
DJI Innovations Phantom Drone Courtesy of DJI
With the increasing popularity of airborne drones, riders, shredders, climbers, and all kinds of athletes have a whole new way to record their exploits. They're taking both amateur and professional video, and dropping in price while increasing in usability. Software (often open-source) is helping stabilize these flying machines, making the video better as well as making them easier to pilot.
DJI Innovations' Phantom takes an important next step, offering a drone that's out-of-the-box ready, with a mount for the ubiquitous GoPro. The four rotors are controlled by a GPS-based autopilot system, and unlike the skeletal metal designs of most drones, it comes preassembled. But the most important feature, of course, is the ability to send it where you can't go.
Petzl NAO Self-Adjusting Headlamp Courtesy of Justin Roth/Petzl
The shtick behind Petzl's NAO headlamp is its reactive lighting technology. Like the ZBoard, the interface is built in; point your face at something up close and it puts out a wide-angle beam. Focus on something in the distance, and it'll switch to a focused spotlight. It's what you do manually with a beam adjuster dial, just automated, and Petzl says it saves battery by analyzing ambient light, and optimizing the beam. But is it really something you need? The sensor atop the NAO requires an operating system to run the reactive lighting, which can be programmed to customizable settings via downloadable software. Yes, it's a headlamp with an OS.
PowerTrekk Hydrogen Fuel Cell Courtesy of PowerTrekk
With all those electronics, you're going to need a way to juice them up. There are myriad hand cranks, solar panels, and even a kinetic device that generates energy from walking, but PowerTrekk is something different. It's a hydrogen fuel cell that uses water to charge batteries. It doesn't just use water though; it requires a fuel "puck," which contains sodium borohydride and sodium silicide. Just add water, which reacts with these two to form hydrogen, to power the proton exchange membrane, and thus, your phone. There's also a small adapter to control voltage, and a battery to store excess energy.
LifeBEAM Heart-Rate Helmet Courtesy of LifeBEAM
Wearing a bicycle helmet is generally considered smart. But you don't usually think of the helmet itself as smart. LifeBEAM partnered with Lazer to make a connected helmet, and named the product "SMART." What the helmet offers is an alternative to chest strap heart rate monitors, substituting an optical sensor that reads a rider's pulse through his or her skin. An integrated accelerometer offers possible future features like crash detection, and the whole system syncs to apps via Bluetooth or ANT+. Though it's still only in production, LifeBEAM found enough believers to run a successful Indiegogo campaign, suggesting that the crowd, at least, welcomes this tech.
WaveJet Motorized Surfboard Courtesy of WaveJet
Tow-in surfing revolutionized big-wave surfing. The WaveJet won't — it only goes 7 miles per hour, not enough to catch really big curls. But then, it's not always about the gnarly stuff. The WaveJet can replace some Jet Skis, or be used as a lifesaving device. A wrist strap controls the propulsion, which is powered by a modular, battery-driven pod with a pair of jets. But controversy over the WaveJet's use belies another issue with high-tech outdoor products; it's not just the user who can have their experience altered by a little technology.
Canon Image-Stabilization Binoculars Courtesy of Canon
It might be telling that Canon's 10 x 42 image stabilization binoculars aren't more popular. Though they incorporate high-end glass and prisms like most expensive binoculars, they require the addition of a battery to drive the motion sensors and microprocessor that coordinate the image stabilization system.
These binocs use "Vari-Angle Prisms" that consist of two lenses held together by a bellows, kind of like an accordion. When the binocs shake — which is all the time, if you're not a robot or a sniper for Seal Team 6 — the bellows flex, the angle between the lenses changes, and the light bends, striking your retina at the same angle as it did before the shudder.
But binoculars are different from cameras, and features like brightness and lens quality weigh much higher in determining the quality of a pair of specs.