More than 1,000 people spent $1,399-plus on the Skully AR-1 smart motorcycle helmet in 2014, as part of an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign. They thought they were helping to fund the most advanced motorbike wearable going. But according to an ex-employee who filed a lawsuit against Skully in 2016, the $2.4 million raised on the platform instead funded the founders' sports cars, holidays and strip club visits.
Last July, Skully confirmed its closure, with no helmets shipped to backers. The money had run out – $15 million of it including additional VC funding. Platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo are clear to users that projects can fail, that backing any comes with risk. However, stories like Skully's are what gives crowdfunding a bad name.
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Unlikely as it sounds, though, the Skully story isn't over. In September 2017, a new company with fresh management, Skully Technologies, revived the project. But they are not alone in making the original dream seem closer to reality as rival options are emerging. Meet the startups that are trying to make the smart motorcycle helmet happen.
Skully Technologies Fenix AR
For those who haven't dug into the Skully story, it positioned itself as a tech-informed motorcycle revolution. And it captured the public's imagination.
Breaking it down, though, the Skully Technologies Fenix AR and the vapourware on which it was based use somewhat familiar, perfectly feasible technologies. For example, you could believe from the project's glossy promo videos that the display is built into the visor, but it isn't. The visor uses an E-Tint surface, darkening it at the press of a button, but the display sits just in front of and below your right eye.
A 180-degree camera on the back of the helmet pipes through your rear view into this screen. This doesn't block out your view of the world as the display is transparent/translucent, instead pasting the rear view onto your view of the road. It also provides turn-by-turn navigation instructions and your speed.
We contacted Skully Technologies for an update on the revised Fenix AR helmet, which claims to have "enhanced performance and specs". The team didn't respond in time but we'll update this piece when they do.
Perhaps the most important part of the resurrection is how Skully Technologies's "make it right" operation will work. The company has adopted "make it right" as one of its taglines, based on offering some comeback for original backers.
Those who invested in 2014 can register to get a Fenix AR on roughly the same terms initially agreed: those who paid $1,200 or more don't have to pay any extra. Those who paid an initial $499 deposit have to add $949, in line with the cost of the original Indiegogo campaign.
This sort of move was necessary if Skully Technologies was to have any chance of repairing consumer confidence. But how many helmets will actually be part of the "Make it Right product allotment" from which these orders will come?
We don't know, and any aggrieved backers with some hope left should fill out Skully Technologies's claim form quickly, as these helmets are allocated on a "first come, first served" basis. Certain parts of Skully Technologies and the Fenix AR are a little too opaque still, but the current plan is to start shipping the helmets in summer 2018.
Borderless Crosshelmet X1
The Borderless Crosshelmet X1 is perhaps the competitor closest to the Fenix AR. It's a full helmet with a camera in the back, giving riders a rear view. This means it has to contend with the Skully fallout more than most.
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"Skully greatly damaged the trust and confidence of our community but we've been able to work around much of the negative sentiments they left in their path," says Borderless CEO Arata Oono."Unlike Skully, whose core consisted of businessmen, our team is composed of engineers and designers with years of experience in the automotive industry.
Skully greatly damaged the trust and confidence of our community
"Safety, in the end, is our main focus and through this implementation of technology, we want to provide consistent situation awareness to our riders. Not only do we want to prevent injury, we want to reduce accidents," says Oono.
The approach is a little different to some, though. "Our helmet, while similar, is not truly AR. We overlay essential information for riders over our visual reality, though we don't augment it," says Oono. "Rather than set the HUD against the backdrop of a road as others have done, we've implemented our HUD in a similar position as a rear view mirror in a car. This area is both unobtrusive and intuitive, and should be second nature for riders who also drive a car."
Open up the Crosshelmet and you'll see what look like a little pair of glasses perched just above, and in front of, the wearer's eyes. They use a "bifocal projection system", which Borderless claims is the "first of its kind in this industry".
As well as offering a virtual rear-view mirror, Crosshelmet displays GPS directions and your speed. It'll connect to Android phones and iPhones to receive navigation information, although there is a GPS chip in the helmet itself.
There's more too. You'll be able to use voice control, and Crosshelmet uses active noise cancellation to reduce road noise. The aim isn't, like a pair of Bose headphones, to get rid of all noise. You need to hear to stay safe. However, reducing noise can also lower driver fatigue. This sort of noise cancellation requires speakers that play sound waves the inverse of those of the noise itself. And the speakers can also be used to play music, podcasts and so on inside the helmet.
This is the most promising direct alternative to the Skully helmet, but its release is still a way off. Oono says the project release for the "first batch of helmets is late 2018".
Like Skully, Crosshelmet's aim is to produce the ultimate tech-soaked motorbike helmet. Reyedr HUD (pronounced "rider") is different. It's an AR module that attaches to your existing helmet, a humbler approach that also cuts costs significantly. While Reyedr cancelled its crowdfunder project before it finished, in July 2017, it listed the modules at $495. Just over a third of the price of a Skully headset.
"HUD helmets are expensive, and typical of all helmets they have a life of only three to five years," says Reyedr CEO and founder Kal Gwalani. "Moreover, riders are loyal to their favourite helmet brands due to style, fit and price. Reyedr HUD fits on the chinbar of any full face helmet, and converts it into a smart AR device. An added benefit is the ability to move and attach to other helmets."
The screen pokes up into the bottom-right of your field of view. It relays your speed, turn-by-turn navigation instructions and the time. While there's no virtual mirror rear-view, its lower-key style will make Reyedr HUD one of the least distracting motorbike helmets.
"The Reyedr's beauty is in its simplicity; rather than building a complicated Swiss Army knife with overly large viewing optics, built-in camera, processors, massive batteries, etc, the Reyrdr HUD is designed to be significantly less complex without sacrificing the efficiency or detail," says Gwalani. He tells us the second prototype's wind drag is just "50 grams", which is being further improved for the final version.
The screen is perhaps the most interesting part of Reyedr HUD, though. It uses a holographic display with "no need to refocus or adjust the eyes". At its core sits tech from a company called Luminit, whose display won an SID Display Component of the Year award in 2017.
SID offers a neat summary of exactly how it works: "Luminit THC embeds holographic wave-fronts onto a thin, clear photopolymer film that's applied to such surfaces as helmet visors or eyeglasses. Then, when an image is projected onto the item's glass or acrylic surface, the THC translates the information into a virtual image for the viewer."
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What matters for us, though, is getting an unobtrusive display that will be clear in all light conditions and is simple enough to read in your peripheral vision. Gawalani told us the screen's resolution is "800 x 600 pixels", which is actually relatively high given that it will take up just a small part of your field of view.
Following Skully, an extremely advanced smart helmet that left people waiting years with nothing to show for it at the end, Reyedr HUD's pitch is refreshingly realistic. All the data is pulled from your phone rather than using internal GPS and it won't radically alter the feel of your ride.
Gwalani says Reyedr HUD is currently in the "design for manufacture" stage, gearing up for production, and that it is due for release in the "latter part of 2018".
Here's something to perk you up: Nuviz is a motorbike headset you can actually already buy (and we are testing out at the moment). It sits somewhere between the Reyedr HUD and Crosshelmet in terms of breadth of features. It's a module that attaches to your standard helmet, with a little physical controller to mount on the handlebar. The controller uses traditional buttons: it'll work with gloves.
Nuviz also predates the Skully project. It was backed on Kickstarter almost a year before Skully came to Indiegogo. It may only have earned 10% the funding of Skully, $200,000, but we'd bet there are a few Skully backers who wish they had sided with Nuviz instead.
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Like Reyedr, Nuviz's concept is based on not altering the experience of the rider too much. There's no virtual rear-view mirror, something Nuviz's Brandon Holzworth says is "absolutely deliberate".
"Motorcyclists have been using mirrors to see behind them since the invention of motorcycles. We don't want to try to retrain riders' brains to see behind them while they are just beginning to learn to use a HUD. It could come one day, but as things stand rear view mirrors are best for checking your six for a number of reasons," says Holzworth.
However, it does have an 8-megapixel action camera mounted on its front and integrated GPS so the connected Android or iPhone (and one is needed) doesn't have to do all the work.
Like Reyedr HUD, Nuviz's display uses a translucent LCOS-based screen tech. This "appears as a floating semi transparent screen in the rider's natural line of sight using military grade optics," according to Holzworth. It sits just inches from your face but gives the impression of being 4m away.
The UI isn't quite as simple as Reyedr HUD's, worth considering for those worried about rider distraction. However, you do get a full map view of navigation, which is probably the most compelling use for any smart helmet like this.
Nuviz continues to develop the software too. "One added feature of the recent NuV1.5 software update enables riders to speak with Siri or Google Now by a simple press of a button," says Holzworth. Thankfully you don't have to scream at a mic on the module itself through a lifted visor: Nuviz comes with a mic and earpieces that snake through into the helmet. If you don't want to wait a year to get hold of one of the other smart helmet options, you can order a Nuviz module now for $699.