Story By Christian Cadera, illustration by Mike Roth – From its humble beginnings over 8,000 years ago when its inventor first fastened lengths of wood to their feet, the activity of skiing has always relied on technology. Improved bindings, sharpened steel edges and the construction of powered lift systems all improved the experience for those who choose to throw themselves down the sides of hills and mountains.
Given skiing’s reliance on technology it should come as no surprise that the tech sector is tackling the unique challenges facing the modern skier. From basic phone apps that facilitate communication between friends on the slopes to augmented reality systems that enhance the skiing experience itself, engineers and skiing enthusiasts are trying to cash in on one of the world’s more expensive pastimes.
While Bluetooth enabled ski gloves and google enhancement systems may seem like handy breakthroughs for the average skier, Interactive Media Design Program Director at Seneca College Sumit Bhatia said that those new to the sport may find the information provided by the devices overwhelming. “Beginners should be focused on the basics their ski instructors taught them. Being inundated with information not relevant to their level of skill would be distracting,” said Bhatia.
Bhatia further stated that the relevancy of such technology for even experienced skiers would depend completely on the ease in which a system or device can be used by a skier while enjoying their sport. The user experience, or UX component of design, is often overlooked in the early stages of adopting technologies like Augmented Reality to an activity like skiing.
“If the system is voice activated the designers would have to take in to consideration the effect of wind; if the system is hand operated how does the designer overcome the need for skiers to keep their hands on their ski poles? These kind of design challenges need to be overcome if a technology is to be applied effectively to skiing,” said Bhatia.
According to Bhatia, if the means by which a skier interacts with their devices is not designed properly the technology will become a distraction rather than an enhancement to their skiing experience.
The challenge to create interactive technology that is not only useful, but safe, is not unique to skiing. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration United States Department of Transportation reported 3,477 distracted driving related deaths in the U.S. in 2015 alone. In response to these accidents UX designers have made changes to how drivers interact with the technology within their cars. Hands-free voice activated cellphone systems built right into the vehicle allow drivers to make use of their cellphone services while still focusing on driving. Projected head-up displays right on the windshield allow for a driver to receive directions and information while keeping their eyes on the road.
In the spirit of these advances in adopting new information interfaces within automobiles, goggle based skiing enhancement systems like GogglePal and RideOn Ski Goggles turn the traditional ski goggles into a display and communications system. By attaching the goggles to your smartphone running the appropriate app, the goggles will display useful information like weather conditions, calories burned, location and proximity of skiing buddies and even display resort maps. These systems, in tandem with other skiing apps like resort finders and lift ticket purchasing apps, are in the process of transforming the downhill skiing business.
Mt. St. Louis Moonstone, Ontario Director of Marketing and Promotions Sarah Huter said new technologies have changed just about everything in the ski resort business. From new methods of snow making to e-commerce dominating lift ticket sales technology has created its own challenges. “It’s not better so much as different,” Huter said. “The rise of e-commerce means more opportunity for fraud so you have to be careful.” Huter said that safety has always been Mount St. Louis Moonstone’s top priority, and the question of whether or not to allow new technologies is no different. Huter said they even turned down the opportunity to sell augmented goggles in their boutique a few years back as they want to see how the goggle systems are adopted before making any decisions as to how safe they are.
With the rise of social media, Huter said its great seeing the young skiers and snowboarders out on the slopes making their own skiing productions in the spirit of Warren Miller films. Unfortunately for the would-be filmmakers Mount St. Louis Moonstone’s proximity to a regional airport means the resort has a ‘No Drone’ policy, forcing the skiers to use other means of recording their exploits.
As for deciding whether or not to adopt these new technologies as part of your own skiing experience the consensus among seasoned skiers and technology experts suggest you ask yourself one question; will using the technology add to the skiing experience or will it be a distraction? According to Bhatia “…I do see potential benefits using technologies like Augmented Reality for the sport, but I don’t believe we are there yet for it to be effective as a standard within the industry.” Bhatia added, “While some folks may adopt to the technology others will struggle with it. We have to be careful if the experience is dictated by the technology or the sport.”