Wearable tech for skiers
Wearable technologies are making inroads into skiing: from GPS and run-tracking watches to Bluetooth connected goggles, our favourite sport is increasingly connected.
Innovations span a whole spectrum of different capabilities: from Star Wars-like heads-up displays in goggles to GPS-smartwatches that can track your performance metrics and achievements direct-to-eye. Further innovative, exciting (and most probably, pretty expensive!) products are on the way. There’s an awful lot of R&D time going into design, testing and marketing wearables — and manufacturers need to recoup all that expense somehow. It’s key to recognise that not all the innovation is really being led by need. In essence, recently it’s already been quite apparent that engineers have taken generic innovations and tried their best to find a fit for skiing. Evidently, there’s not always a good fit and some products appear very much as a solution to a non-existent problem. For example, how useful is a £500+ device that tells the ski tourer how many kick turns they’ve made in a skinning ascent up to a col when compared to their last ski randonée foray? Sure, the same device can also tell you your ascent rate and height gain… but an Avocet altimeter watch from 20 years ago would have produced much the same information, and to a similar degree of accuracy — with the same sort of reliability. Arguably the Avocet was a little better, if simpler: the batteries lasted several seasons!
Feedback as a factor
Skiers find that feedback can prove a crucial motivating factor in spurring development and progression on the mountain. It’s obviously crucial, then, to ensure the frequency and quality of the information your device collects to provide the all-important performance guidance is of the highest standard. Critically, it’s worth noting that the insight wearables can provide is largely dependent upon both the accuracy of the metrics (data quality) and the effectiveness of the analysis performed onboard within the device: it’s no good having zillions of data points from your activity on the mountain without the necessary algorithms and analytics to render meaningful information to help you progress. In fact, much of the effort required to work out the real value of any wearable device to the skier is in sorting through all the extraneous gimmicks and novelties that deliver little benefit to the end user on the mountain.
With a plethora of different devices on the market, choosing the right one for your needs can seem more than a little daunting. With the seemingly endless array of different bells and whistles these little technological miracles now possess, a pointer in the direction for gear selection should save you a lot of time and frustration poring over the technical specs in search of answers! Rather than attempt an overview of every single device out on the market — there are simply hundreds — we’ve thought to make the process for our blog readers a little simpler by focusing on a review of the most important innovations and digital tools currently on the market.
The GPS smartwatch from Garmin is a multi-sport device that works well for skiing and snowboarding. The Fenix 3’s functions are based on sensing technology that includes an altimeter/barometer, compass, temperature gauge and GPS. The watch can also be paired with an iOS or Android smartphone, allowing you to view SMS messages, alarms and alerts, email and weather updates. Put it into ski mode and it will automatically tracks the number of runs, speed, distance and vertical descent. A nifty additional function is the review feature that allows you to instantly check how your last run compared to others earlier in the day. The watch is intelligent enough too to sense when you’re on the lift and implements an ‘auto pause’ to ensure the collected data isn’t skewed by erroneous readings from the chairlift. Furthermore, the adjustable strap is designed so that the unit can be worn over a jacket or fleece and can be used as a remote control to operate Garmin action sport cameras. The epitome of technological sophistication, the Fenix 3 is a true all-rounder that will find many uses (not just for skiing!).
RRP - £429.99
PIQ has teamed up with the leading ski equipment company Rossignol to develop a performance-tracking sensor that clips onto the ski boot. Worn on the boot the sensor is discrete, and is designed as a shockproof, waterproof unit that delivers data for analysis that includes edge-to-edge speed, air time, G-force and carving angle. But who in the French marketing team came up with the idea of calling this device the ‘PIQ Robot’? Not exactly the most inspiring moniker for what is actually quite an accomplished piece of technical wizardry. The integrated sensors deliver a device that is much more than just a simple up-down/number of ski runs-type tracker: when attached to your ski boot the Robot can assist in measuring and providing detailed feedback on your skiing technique. Tracking speed, force transmitted to the ski, transition times and the angle of your turns should in theory help the skier fine their individual performance… it can even analyse various different aspects of jumps you perform – and give them a rating! The question remains, however, as to whether all this information is really that valuable: self-assessment may not provide the improvements that time spent with a good ski instructor would deliver. One can’t help thinking that the novelty of using a PIQ Robot to analyse ski technique might quickly wear off, perhaps even before the batteries have run out…
RRP - £169
Carv’s gadget is finally in production after a rather long and drawn out Kickstarter campaign raised funds to bring the concept to life. Following the story of the Carv’s development has highlighted just how complex an undertaking bringing any new ski device to market is, especially one with sensor technology that needs integrating with hardware, and indeed reliable connectivity with a smartphone. You’ve got to admire the persistence of the designers of this device for actually getting the end product to market after many years of trial and error. The engineers at Carv certainly have pretty lofty ambitions for their device — the marketing spiel states: “Carv is the first wearable technology that talks to you as you ski – in fact it’s a bit like having your own, virtual, ski coach. Inspired by Olympic technology, it gives you the sort of feedback and knowledge that – so far – only racers have had access to.”
The Carv system relies on specially developed 2mm sole inserts that slip into the ski boots (similar to heating units in custom-moulded liners) with a rechargeable tracker unit that is clipped onto the back of the boots. The sensors within the sole insert are able to measure the skier’s motion and pressure distribution through the foot, and can relay performance feedback through the earphones that are connected to the system. The manufacturers of Carv claim the technology will help you: “Become a better, smoother and faster skier…For every turn you make Carv analyses when, where and how much pressure you apply. Carv then speaks to you to correct your form in real-time on the slopes and later provides in-depth run analysis in the app.”It must be stated at this point that the choice of feedback mechanism raises questions relating to the inherent safety of such a system: could the skier be overly distracted and impeded by the voice prompts? It’s imperative when skiing that you’re able to pick up cues of what’s happening around you: there’s a risk when wearing headphones/earphones that you may not hear others around you, or be as aware of what’s happening on the mountain more generally. Use of the Carv device, then, raises the more universal question of whether wearable tech on the slopes could actually impede safety, and may overall actually hamper your skiing enjoyment. There’s certainly a case for a little digital detox when you’re on the mountain (and out of the office)!
Oakley certainly have quite a pedigree when it comes to innovation and making good use of their R&D budget. The Airwave is Oakley’s attempt to bring connectivity and sensing to their top flight goggles (no pun intended!). In fact, the design of the Airwave actually borrows from the technology developed for the ‘heads-up’ display goggles used by fighter pilots. Quite a few manufacturers, including Smith and Zeal, are now getting in on the game with high-end bluetooth connected goggles in their lineup. Oakley’s offering however is the incumbent, and is now available in an updated ’1.5’ version… which, ironically, appears to allude to the fact that the goggle is somewhat in a halfway stage of development.
The current iteration of the Airwave tech-google features a tiny display in the corner of the eye that allows the skier to stay updated with a host of facts and figures while they’re mid run — including speed, descent rate and jump analytics. The goggles can also pinpoint your location on a resort map using GPS and the run or point-of-interest you’re looking for. If you’ve friends you can also afford the hefty price tag for a pair of Airwaves you can also track their position relative to you on the mountain. Again, it needs to be said that much of the functionality may prove little more than a novelty after a few runs. A significant problem with the current version of the Airwave is its size: the gadgetry definitely comes at a cost in terms of both bulk and weight. Users have complained that the goggle is just to heavy and cumbersome to be worn comfortably all day, and that the optical display is hard to read on sunnier days on the slopes (exactly when you should definitely be wearing eye protection…!). There are also a few bugs that need to be worked out with the OS 4.5 that runs on the latest version of the goggles: users have complained of dropped links, and a slow interface that renders updates on location via GPS too slowly. Our recommendation: save your pennies and invest in a more affordable pair of goggles with additional lenses for different lighting/weather conditions. You can always track you descents with one of the many free smartphone-based apps such as Strava.
RRP - £340
Remember: it’s only data - don’t forget to enjoy your skiing!
It’s important not to get too caught up in your digital analysis of what’s happening when you ski. Digital devices are indeed helpful, facilitative tools — and can provide a source of motivation to sneak in extra runs at the end of the day to squeeze out a little more insight into how your technique’s improving (particularly when challenging weather may attempt to persuade us otherwise!). However, the information they furnish should be taken with a healthy dose of appreciation that it tells only part of the story. Clearly, one can never measure every aspect of the experience of skiing… and certainly not the fun factor! Skiing should, first and foremost, be a safe and enjoyable experience. Don’t get too obsessed with counting laps, descent velocities and turns made. Before you buy any new bling bit of digital kit there’s something to be said for considering whether it will really aid your skiing; or whether you might not be better off saving your pennies for the purchase of another day’s ski pass!
There’s certainly a case on a powder day for inadvertently ‘forgetting’ your GPS watch or other smart-tracking-turn quantifying-device and simply having a blast — skiing as many laps as possible safely, and enjoying the descents to the max — carefree as to how you’re ‘performing’. Without devices it’s easy to forget the metrics and take the opportunity to really marvel at the beauty that’s all around us as we explore the mountains. As yet, there’s not a tracking device or app that those clever engineers at the big ski companies have developed to measure the satisfaction of a great powder run with your ski buddies! If you’re having fun, something must be going right!
IFMGA / UIAGM / IVBV
The IFMGA / UIAGM / IVBV symbol is the logo of the International Federation of Mountain Guides Association.
Nick, Olly and Matt are all fully-qualified UIAGM Mountain Guides and members of the British Mountain Guides Association.
The International Ski Instructors Association is the world body for professional ski instructors.
The ISIA was formed in 1971 and there are currently 39 member nations representing the very best in ski instruction around the world.