Ernest C. Manning Innovation Award: $10,000
Dan Eisenhardt & Hamid Abdollahi
Heads-up Display (HUD)
Vancouver, British Columbia
Smartphones are fun, but the next leap forward in portable tech will be devices you can wear. Dan Eisenhardt understood that long before the fuss over Google Glasses, and set about designing heads-up display (HUD) goggles to be worn by skiers and skydivers—eyewear you can already buy off the shelf from big-name makers like Zeal, Scott and Oakley.
It began as a school assignment, back in 2006. Eisenhardt needed a product idea for a class in his MBA program at the University of B.C., and was sitting on the lawn beside to the Student Union Building, adjacent to the university pool, when the idea came to him. “I used to be a competitive swimmer,” says the Danish-born 38-year-old, “and at that moment I happened to be looking over at the pool.” What, he wondered, if an athlete could get streaming read-outs on his speed, heart-rate and location directly from his goggles? The basic technology was already available: LCD screens, wireless transmitters, ultra-thin batteries. Why not build a device for people who are too active to pick up a phone?
The idea morphed into an enterprise, now known as Recon Instruments of Vancouver. Eisenhardt and partner Hamid Abdollahi put a $250,000 National Research Council grant together with money from about 45 private investors (one man from Nigeria bought in after meeting Eisenhardt in a Vancouver pub) and set about tinkering with models. By the middle of 2008, they had a rough mock up—goggles equipped with a tiny monitor, displaying information sent from a laptop computer. Prototypes featuring video streamed from an iPhone would follow, and their big breakthrough came in January 2009, when they took their concept to a ski equipment trade show in Las Vegas. It was there they were discovered by Zeal Optics, a Boulder, Colo.-maker of high-end ski goggles and sunglasses. “We did a deal with them and took our next model to a snow industry show in 2010,” recalls Eisenhardt. “It was the talk of the show. Nobody had ever seen anything like it.”
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Indeed, imagine goggles that provide information such as altitude, vertical distance covered, and temperature. They can locate your friends on a resort map, or show you your friends’ texts through Bluetooth link to your iPhone or Android smartphone. You can personalize your applications just as you do on your mobile device (wondering which ski lift has the shortest queue? no problem, there’s an app). And all of it appears in unobtrusive images on the edge of your sightline—LCD signals directed through mirrors and prisms that amplify them and intensify their clarity. It’s as if you’re looking at a 14-inch TV screen about two metres away.
The first version went to market in 2010, and Zeal’s competitors quickly decided they needed to match. Oakley, Scott, Smith Uvex, Alpina and Briko are all now working with Recon, which has shipped 50,000 units to date. Current models retail for about $600, and snow sport is just part of the potential market: Eisenhardt and Abdollahi are looking at potential users ranging from skydivers to astronauts, while NASA is testing the concept to use in its next generation of space suit. And the company is taking pre-orders for a new model of HUD-equipped sunglasses—a product sure to attract interest in their company from Google.
Eisenhardt says they’ve already received overtures from a few would-be buyers, which they’ve politely rebuffed on the belief there’s plenty more room for growth. “We’re considered niche, but it’s actually a huge business,” he says. “There are 90 million skiers around the world. So we’re just trying to build the business and make it more valuable.”