Review: Oakley Airwave ski goggles are like Google Glass, but useful

Heads-up display actually makes sense in a sport-specific context

 
Oakley Airwave smart ski goggles
(Oakley)

Sports equipment makers who aren’t at least exploring the possibility of adding technology to their products are probably watching an opportunity slip away, given the public’s growing interest in so-called wearables. Eyewear maker Oakley certainly isn’t missing that boat. The California-based company is meeting this ski and snowboard season head-on—literally—with the Oakley Airwave 1.5, a high-end set of smartphone-connected goggles that offer up a number of features.

I tried them out last week while skiing and liked them a lot. Airwave delivers some of the promise of Google Glass, without all the problems.

The Oakley Airwave houses a small heads-up-display on its inside, just under where your right eye is. Glancing downward gives you a view of the screen, which displays various sorts of information. The screen looks small at the outset, but it’s plenty big when it’s that close to your eye.

The goggles connect to a smartphone via Bluetooth and can be set up to display notifications such as text messages or emails, as well as music playlists. Navigating menus is done with a plastic directional pad that either straps to your wrist or attaches to the goggles’ band.

Sounds like a smartwatch, right? It is, but with one key difference. Smartwatch peddlers have been trying to convince consumers that taking their phones out of their pockets to check notifications is a big inconvenience, except it really isn’t. Having to charge your big ugly watch every day—now that is inconvenient.

Also inconvenient: trying to check your email while on a ski lift in the freezing cold while holding your poles. In that way, the Airwave’s on-screen notifications actually do serve a purpose.

I got a kick out of reading my texts via the HUD, even if there’s no way to return messages without actually pulling out your phone.

But that’s not the main point of the Oakley Airwave. Via the connected smartphone app, the goggles can also display trail maps of various ski resorts and show you where you are at any given time via GPS.

Ski lifts are marked as red lines, easy trails as green, medium as blue and so on. It’s a great way to see where you are on the mountain and to plan your next run—again, without having to expose your hands to the cold by pulling out a physical map.

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If your friends are also wearing Airwaves, they’ll pop up on your map too. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to test this feature.

The goggles also track speed, vertical distance traveled and air time, which is probably what most buyers will be interested in. My day was officially game-ified by these features as I found myself wanting to beat my previous top speeds, without ending up in the hospital, of course.

It’s also worth mentioning that the goggles themselves—which retail for around $650 (Canadian)—do their basic purpose very well. I had no fogging or crystallization issues, even after skiing through snow makers. I was also pleasantly surprised when the lens shifted colour from a yellow-ish tinge during the day to a blue-ish tint when the sun was waning.

On the downside, the goggles are quite big—they’re considerably bulkier than the non-connected ones I usually wear. The battery was also a bit wonky. I was sure I charged it fully the night before, but the goggles conked out with a few hours of ski time left.

Otherwise, the Oakley Airwave does wearable technology right. Smartwatches are too big and bulky and already face limitations, but that isn’t problem for goggles in general since they have more real estate to house that technology.

Oakley’s goggles also do solve real problems and add nifty new capabilities to existing activities, which is a claim that many wearables can’t honestly make.

One thing the Airwave is missing is a camera, which could be a possible future addition if the popularity of GoPro is any indication. But for now, the omission is probably a good idea as it keeps the price down and avoids the sorts of privacy issues that Google Glass has encountered.

Oakley supplied a loan unit for the purposes of this review.

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