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Can a head-worn fitness device work? Recon seems to think so

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Long before Google had ever uttered the word glass, Recon Instruments was rising to prominence with a head-worn display designed for snow sports. You'd be forgiven for not knowing the name, since the technology was buried inside expensive sets of ski goggles like Oakley's Airwave. Then, the company announced that a new product for cyclists and runners would arrive, this time branded under its own name. Few outside the running/cycling community paid attention to the Recon Jet, since they were all distracted by Google's rival. Two years later, and Glass has been pulled from the market in the hope that Tony Fadell can turn it into a device people want to buy. As such, the road is clear for Recon's fitness-oriented wearable, but can this small Canadian company succeed where Google failed? Earlier this year, I sat down with the company's Tom Fowler and a nearly finished prototype of the final hardware to find out.

Gallery: Recon Jet hands-on | 21 Photos

Jet, in essence, is a pair of sunglasses that you wear when running or cycling that look a bit heavier than your average pair of Ray-Bans. Style-wise, they're less geeky or sporty, resembling the sort of tactical eyewear that only hairy vigilante Dog the Bounty Hunter could fall in love with. That's not to say the device is ugly, but you'll have to recalibrate your wardrobe to ensure that you don't look like a reject from a Roger Corman sci-fi movie. I'd suggest ditching the suit in favor of some brightly colored spandex and a cycling helmet at the very least.

Hardware-wise, and assuming that you're wearing them, you'll find the "compute module" on the right-hand side of the frame. Tucked inside here is a 1GHz dual-core Cortex-A9, 1GB of RAM, 8GB of storage, Bluetooth, GPS and the various movement sensors that'll track your activities. There's a 2.1-megapixel camera up front and the heads-up display that's held in position below your right eye. One thing you won't find is a cable that joins this to the battery module stationed on the opposite side, and that's because there isn't one.

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Instead, energy passes between the two with a microfilament, which is embedded in the lenses themselves. Undeniably cool as that may be, it serves as an added reason to treat the Jet with kid gloves, because you won't be able to replace anything on the cheap. In the future, the company is hoping to offer some aftermarket lenses in various tints (clear, yellow and mirrored) as well as prescription versions, but don't hold your breath for these to arrive anytime soon.

You may need a phone to tether your Jet to the internet, but the hardware is designed for standalone use, with the controls built into the compute module itself. There's a pair of buttons on the underside -- OK and Back -- while a four-way touch panel sits on the side to respond to your up-down and left-right swipes. There's also a small nubbin below the display that'll let you angle the screen to better suit your eyeline, and the company claims that it's the equivalent of staring at a 30-inch HD display.

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If you're already a glasses wearer, then nothing about the Jet will be too disconcerting, apart from the heaviness. Because the compute module is heavier than the battery by a good margin, the whole thing had a tendency to list to the right a little. Admittedly, after I'd gotten used to the feel, I had to wear the Jet over my existing glasses to try it out properly since I wasn't wearing contact lenses and there's no prescription offering.

Once you've activated the hardware, the first thing you're offered is to begin an activity, and running is, tellingly, displayed first. It's one swipe to the right if you want to switch to cycling. When you start an activity, the small screen will begin pumping the usual bevy of statistics to your eye, with more promised in future software updates. If you want additional numbers, you can pair the appropriate ANT+ accessories like a chest-mounted heart rate monitor or a cadence sensor. At the time of writing, firm battery life information wasn't available, but only the slowest of marathoners would be put off by the Jet's life, which should run to an estimated 5.5 hours on a charge.

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Unfortunately, in this behind-closed-doors demo, I wasn't able to take the gear out for a proper field test. Instead, I turned my attention to what Recon hopes to achieve with the Jet and how it intends to avoid the pitfalls other wearables have made. Fowler went to great pains not to mention competing products by name (so I will instead: It rhymes with "Boogle Blass"), but said that their biggest flaw was a lack of "purpose." I know what he means, since it was never clear what Google's head-mounted computer was designed to do.

For instance, we don't use our smartphones as phones anymore, but that's the task that they're ostensibly purchased to fulfill. Glass never seemed to have a sense of doing one job well, since it was a fairly rudimentary camera, navigation and notification device. Rather than being designed to stay on your face all day, Fowler believes that the Recon Jet will be used for a specific job -- tracking your runs and cycle rides -- and then put away when you're done.

There's a refreshing lack of grand plans about "platforms" from Fowler, too, although he believes that Jet has the potential to be more than just a cycling accessory. The company has teamed up with professor Samuele Marcora to learn if athletes would run faster if subjected to subliminal training. According to the research, inspirational messages that are flashed into a sprinter's eyes can help improve their speed and stamina. Recon has also been touting the Jet around various sectors including law enforcement and the oil and gas industry to help remote workers communicate.

For now, however, Recon Jet needs to prove that it can be accepted by the fitness crowd, but will it? At this early stage, I'm struggling to see many runners who would rush to pay the $699 for one of these devices. After all, while it offers a raft of features that you can't get on a GPS watch, there aren't any that runners are exactly crying out for. Additionally, the doubled price (over other fitness wearables) doesn't justify the convenience of not having to check your wrist every now and again for your performance statistics.

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Cyclists, on the other hand, are likely to buy these in droves, which is why it's so incongruous that running is the first option on the menu. The unobtrusive and glanceable heads-up display would be perfect for a rider who doesn't want to take their eyes off the road. In addition, the built-in camera might just be perfect for recording those moments when douchebags cut you off in city traffic. It may be vastly more expensive than a handlebar-mounted unit, but it also does a lot more and those added features make sense here.

As a kicker, $699 is half what Google was asking people to pay for its equivalent, and many may consider it a cheap way to get into the head-mounted wearable space. As such, if your second skin is spandex and you're always wearing a crash helmet, then giving this a go seems like a good idea. In addition to the US price, you can also pick Jet up in Europe (€749), the UK (£579.99), Japan (88,800 Yen) and Canada ($879 CAD) via the company's website.

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