Big test: The best snow and ski trackers

Up the mountain with smart goggles, watches, boots & binders
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It was only natural for wearables to bombard the sports industry, having let you track and share your run, bike or hike for years. But now both big companies and startups are happily addressing the demand for activity trackers to be used in the relatively niche snow sport market.

We head up to the mountain after New England's first snow to test some of the best options we have going into the winter season and what's coming next, just in time for the holidays.

The goggles

Buy it now: Oakley Airwave 1.5

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The Oakley Airwave 1.5 goggles, one of our favourite bits of snow tech, are super intuitive to set up and use. Despite being no noticeably heavier than regular goggles, they incorporate a small internal screen designed by Recon Instruments, which essentially gives you a visual of what's going on in your Android device or iPhone, including music controls, text messages and calls. You can also download trail maps and see exactly where you are via GPS, and importantly, where the nearest lodge (and post-run beer) is.

Of course, developers have also incorporated additional snow-sport related measurements that are displayed in real-time on a customizable home screen, like speed, vertical descent, distance etc. And if your friends download the app, you can track each other's whereabouts on the mountain. Like the speedometer of your car though, the design requires that you glance down to the bottom of your goggle, slightly outside your regular visual field, to see the info, which, at least at first, is a bit distracting and takes some adjusting to. A separate remote unit connects to your wrist or goggle strap to give commands to the system, and its big buttons are easily distinguishable even through clumsy mittens.

As one source pointed out, it's interesting and perhaps a little surprising that the googles are so successful given the floundering of Google Glass, which came out at around the same time as the first-generation Airwave. But perhaps the elegance of the Airwave lies in the fact that they are virtually indistinguishable from normal ski goggles.

Wait for: RideOn AR

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As great as the Airwave is though, they have some competition. Developed by a software engineer who created on helmet displays for fighter pilots, RideOn has created goggles that augment reality. Rather than a small screen in the corner, information is projected right into your eye and looks as if it is overlaid on top of reality, and the controls are then manipulated by your gaze.

While you're moving, the goggles monitor several physical metrics; include a camera to record your ride, which you can even live stream; and track your friends. But they can also effectively turn your ride into a game, with virtual obstacle courses and challenges. We couldn't test one out in time for this piece, but we imagine it's kind of like the sports enthusiast's equivalent of Pokémon GO. And like the Pokémon GO phenomenon, we can see this technology catching on.

However, all that hardware comes at a price—the system costs $1,629 and the eyewear isn't particularly low profile.

The watch

Buy it now: TomTom Adventurer

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Garmin's Fenix 3 HR is widely considered to be one of the leading outdoor GPS smart watches on the market. But TomTom is hoping to disrupt Garmin's lead with the new TomTom Adventurer, which became widely available last month. While TomTom has obviously had less expensive watches and activity trackers on the market in recent years, the Adventurer is their first attempt at competing in the high-end market.

The rugged outdoor GPS watch is certainly comfortable enough to wear all day for 24/7 activity tracking, including heart rate, sleep stats, steps, etc. And the addition of the barometer means that in ski and snowboard modes you get metrics like gradient and altitude change in addition to things like maximum speed and distance.

The route exploration feature also allows you to share your hike or ride with a file that your friends can download to their device and use to trace your route based on coordinates. Though that feature is mostly relevant for hikers, it could work for off-piste skiers and snowboarders as well. The automatic lift detection works well too, and automatically presents a snapshot of stats from your most recent run.

It also doesn't hurt that the Adventurer costs more than $100 less than its competition and comes with blue tooth wireless headphones for listening to the 3gb of music you can store on the watch.


Boots and bindings

Buy it now: Cerevo XON SNOW-1

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One of the first on-snow devices to measure pressure, the XON SNOW-1 snowboard bindings feature embedded sensors in the soles of the bindings, and a nine-axis sensor that measures speed, acceleration, angular velocity and more. Bright blue LED lights on the toe and heel of the bindings beam light out over the as you shift your weight, which could make for some cool video effects at night.

But the heaviness of the RoboCop reminiscent bindings (they weigh 3.2 kg in total) means they're better suited for speeding down the mountain than doing any complex tricks that require finesse in the air.

Cerevo CEO Takuma Iwasa says he was inspired by watching Formula One on TV, where speed and other stats are depicted on the screen underneath the drivers. Those types of stats are shown on the cool looking Cerevo app, which connects to the bindings via Bluetooth, and allows you to analyze your own data and share it on social media. As of now the bindings are mostly distributed in ski shops in Japan. But the rest of us can find them on Amazon.

While we could see these bindings being cool for groups of snowboarders racing down the mountain, the downside is that they're not designed to coach you like some other devices are attempting to do.

Buy it now: Piq Robot

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Released last year and updated in November, the Piq Robot is a sensor that tracks your angle, force, turn rate, speed and more. The company partnered with Rossignol to create a system that tracks your stats on the snow with the robot attached to your ski boot with a strap, and allows you to compare your data with your previous runs and those of your peers on social media. It's particularly useful for analyzing jumps, including rotations, airtime and landing force.

Cofounder Ongan Mordeniz says the company, based in Europe, worked with Rossignol to conduct field tests with amateurs and professional skiers to identify patterns for certain moves. "So for example for skiing, if you're carving downhill, it will be identified from the data sets. And from that we can come up with precise results to show what you are doing and how you compare to others," he said.

The coolest part though is that the same sensor can be used with different accessories and software updates to analyze performance in different sports too, like tennis and golf. So you can use your PIQ robot, even when there's not a drop of precipitation.

Wait for: Carv

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The best may be yet to come. The much anticipated Carv, which wasn't yet available to test, is looking to build on the progress of devices like the PIQ. The ski trainer will incorporate a sensor on the ankle of each boot, but will also include sole inserts that will measure the pressure from your feet.

Cofounder Jamie Grant came up with the concept when he was completing a PhD in financial economics and working with huge sets of data. An avid skier, he thought it would be cool to apply the same kind of analysis to ski data.

"Measuring airtime and distance is cool to share with your friends. But we wanted to create something that would actually help people improve their technique. Unless you're a racing skier, the best skier is not necessarily the fastest skier," he said.

Like the developers of Piq, Carv worked with amateur and professional skiers to come up with algorithms that will recognize ski patterns, but also give you tips to improve and suggestions for on-snow training exercises while you're still on the slopes. The result is the closest thing we might get to a virtual ski instructor.

Carv is also exploring options to expand to other sports, which means snowboard and other virtual coaches may be coming soon. In the meantime, there's plenty to keep us busy on the snow.




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