By NEIL PARMAR
Before Dan Wysocki>, of Monrovia, Calif., began a recent day of snowboarding in the Sierra Nevadas, he did a thorough review of all his gear. He checked his bindings to make sure they weren't frayed. He scanned his UV-protected goggles for smudges and scratches.
And, of course, he checked his helmet to make sure the embedded Bluetooth earpiece was in place. After all, how else was he supposed to chat with his friends midrun?
Welcome to the James Bond-ification of the ski slope courtesy of the $170 billion consumer-electronics industry, which is working to ensure that no place on earth is safe from text-messaging, headphone-clad daredevils. Until recently, winter sports occupied a high-tech hibernation zone, as all but the most hard-core addicts left their gear at the lodge. (The electronic math was simple: Very cold plus very wet equals very broken.) But with society growing increasingly wired, manufacturers have seen an opportunity to retool familiar items like mp3 players and smartphones for cold-weather excursions. They're pitching everything from ear warmers with built-in headphones to gloves made with material from the aerospace industry so snowpeople can control touchscreens without risking frostbit fingers.
Some innovations are paying off: Last ski season, for example, more than 44,000 helmets were sold with headphones or Bluetooth built in, up 60 percent from four years earlier. And the market certainly seems likely to grow. In a survey of skiers and boarders by Leisure Trends Group, a market-research firm, almost half said they carry cameras on the slopes, while 16 percent bring a music player. What's more, some of the winterproof gear isn't much more expensive than ordinary gear a friendly development in a shaky economy. Still, some experts warn that the technology hasn't caught up with consumer fantasies when it comes to withstanding the elements. After all, Wysocki wound up returning that cool helmet; he says his phone connection kept shorting out. Here's how the (frozen) tech landscape is changing.
Music vs. Nature
Gadget lovers tend to worry most about things like, say, having their iPod fall off a chairlift and fritz in the snow. But Vishal Sapru, a manager at research firm Frost & Sullivan, says the real problem is battery strain in cold weather especially for music players, whose batteries often can't be replaced. Manufacturers such as Apple and Microsoft say their iPods and Zunes work most efficiently at room temp. Indeed, while they'll continue playing tunes, says Sapru, the battery discharges 35 to 40 percent faster once the temperature dips below freezing. Throw in sudden shifts between temperature extremes (like breaks in a ski lodge) and a battery's life span can shrink dramatically.
Gearmakers are working around this issue with mixed results. Haier, for example, makes the Sport Video mp3 player ($50), which features a pedometer, stopwatch and water-resistant design. A company spokesperson says it was created for people who want to train outdoors in the winter, but adds, "I wouldn't necessarily throw it in the snow." Many manufacturers are now focused on simpler fixes that'll keep devices insulated and attached to users' bodies. Gear companies are sewing speakers into earmuffs, headbands and hats including one whose ear panels light up to the beat. Music piped through these contraptions can sound a bit muffled, but higher-end speakers attached to devices like the Skullcandy VonZipper headphone goggles ($150) deliver a more powerful punch. Len Saunders, a fitness teacher and author, says he has often resorted to using a low-tech method: yanking a knit hat over his headphones.
Photographs by Jana Leon for SmartMoney; styling by Wendy Schelah.
How frequently do cell phones get lost on the mountain? Just log on to Facebook, where hundreds of online groups have launched to lament how often mobiles are slain by snow. ("It's an epidemic," one victim wrote.) Still, almost two-thirds of avid skiers bring phones on the slopes, and they've proved willing to spend on protective cases or on more ruggedly designed phones. Casio's new G'zOne Ravine ($150, with a new Verizon contract), for one, boasts water and shock resistance, and the company says it can withstand temperatures as low as 13 degrees below zero.
Of course, using these devices isn't fun with frozen fingers. That's why more apparel makers are designing gloves to control touchscreens, buttons and click wheels. One typical example, Tec Touch gloves, which run $20 to $80, include pods made of silicon "conductive fabric" on both the index finger and thumb. Guiding these tiny pods accurately takes some time to master, and once the gloves get damp, they tend to leave streaks behind. (A spokesperson for 180s, the manufacturer, says "there is no solution to the wet-glove challenge.") Another idea: the capacitive stylus, which works like a finger on touchscreens. Each costs $10 to $15, and they're higher tech than what some consumers used last winter a "sausage stylus," made from snack meat. (To a touchscreen, sausages feel a lot like human skin. Shudder.)
Music players and phones are pretty quotidian stuff, but GPS technology is giving some skiers an experience straight out of a James Cameron movie with a price tag to match. One example: Transcend goggles, from Recon Instruments, include a micro LCD screen which, once switched on, appears to hang about 6 feet in front of a skier, where it relays real-time data like speed, altitude and vertical distance traveled. The goggles also include mapping software that can trace a skier's precise route. And they cost as much as a night at some luxury lodges: $400 to $500.
The price of handheld GPS systems can be just as high ($100 to $600), and the winter-oriented "map apps" can also get expensive, once you include the cost of the maps themselves. App creators like Ryan Quick, founder of RedPineMapping.com, says that's due to their intricacy. His company's regional maps, which cost $40 to $45, combine government-provided location data with tips aimed at snowmobile riders; they pinpoint driving paths, natural landmarks and pit stops for fuel, food and accommodations. But even cheaper GPS tools can get a sportsman out of a jam. Last winter, when Robert McDermott and his 6-year-old son got stranded at the top of a mountain near Snowmass, Colo., the 37-year-old physician tried Realski, which charges a buck per map for each of the more than 100 resorts it covers. By panning his phone's video camera across the mountain, McDermott could learn the name of each nearby run and its difficulty level. One of them, fortunately, was kid-friendly. "Quite nice," McDermott says.