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Garmin's 'Varia Vision' headset is the Google Glass of cycling

Engadget Engadget 30/04/2016 Andrew Tarantola

© Provided by Engadget

The thing about cycling is that it's only as complicated a pastime as you make it. An $80 Huffy performs the same basic function as a carbon-fiber street racer costing 100 times more, just with a lesser degree of effectiveness. Similarly, you can go the old-school way of glancing down at the cycling computer mounted on your handlebars whenever you want an update on your ride -- or you could strap this tiny $400 monitor from Garmin to the side of your face and get a continuous stream of telemetry data without taking your eyes off the road.

The Varia Vision is Garmin's recent addition to its ANT+ cycling accessory collection, ANT+ being the proprietary wireless standard that Garmin's various devices leverage to share data with one another. The Vision is a heads-up display that pairs with select models in the company's line of cycling computers. I tested the Varia Vision with the Garmin 520 computer, though it's also compatible with the flagship model 1000. There's also the possibility that other ANT+ community members will integrate it with their own bike computers in the future. Plus, if you're already using Garmin's Varia Rear Radar device, the Vision will also display incoming-car warnings in addition to the standard mix of speed, distance and performance metrics from the computer itself.

The device weighs a scant 1.1 ounces, lasts about eight hours on a charge and can be mounted on most any pair of sport-style sunglasses using a strap-on base plate that the HUD twist-locks into. The 428-by-240-pixel screen automatically reorients itself whenever the device powers on, and it can be mounted ambidextrously on either the left or right temple of your glasses. I did find that putting it on the left side, however, completely blocked my peripheral vision on that, side which made it difficult to glance over my shoulder for cars while overtaking other cyclists.

Also, the Vision really does need a set of sport glasses. I initially installed it on my Ray-Ban Wayfarers and, while the Vision did work, the placement and orientation of the screen was less than ideal. I mean, the screen arm bends in only about 80 degrees, and there's no way to really angle it up or down, so if the glasses arm sits high compared with the lens itself, part of the screen is blocked by the bottom edge of the display's mount.

The color LED display itself is impressive. The clarity is great, as are the brightness and the interface navigation. You control the screen's display by swiping a finger forward and back across the Vision's body. Even through dark or polarized lenses, I was able to easily see the Vision's readout. It is a bit weird to get used to, though, because when you have both eyes open, the image ghosts and you wind up seeing a semi-transparent data screen overlying reality. That said, it's not particularly distracting once you acclimate.

I ran into some minor hiccups while setting up the Vision. As with most connected devices, the Vision was an utter brat when I paired it with my cycling computer. I spent a half hour alternately swearing at it and begging it to just pair already before figuring out that the HUD needed a firmware update in order to talk to the 520. I then spent another hour tracking down the necessary Garmin Connect desktop software (and the Android mobile app), creating a Connect account, registering devices and updating firmware before finally getting the cycling computer and HUD to get on speaking terms. That's a lot of work just to get two companion devices from the same manufacturer -- and using the same pairing scheme, no less -- to do what they're supposed to do out of the box.

That said, the Varia Vision system is good at what it does. I often find myself squinting at my cycling computer during rides, and that issue is even worse in the morning, when I'm wearing sunglasses to counter the glare of the sun. This combination of myopia, screen reflection and dark lenses can make accurately reading the computer -- while dodging absentminded drivers and entitled hipster cyclists, natch -- a lot harder than it should be. But with the Varia on my face, all I need to do is wink my off eye closed for a second to see exactly how my splits are stacking up, and without taking my eyes off the road.

As impressive as the Vision is, I should point out that it's not the sort of accessory you toss into your shopping cart while waiting in the checkout line. The Vision does not lend itself well to the stop-and-go action of city commutes. Rather, it's better suited for longer open-road training rides. It's a serious training tool that requires a serious budget.

As mentioned, the Vision alone will set you back $400. That's more than I paid for my 40-inch TV and is on par with what you'd pay for a next-gen gaming console. What's more, the Vision is useless by itself; it really is just a Bluetooth screen that straps to your glasses. In order for it to display information, you have to pair it with a $300 to $500 cycling computer and mount it onto glasses that start at around $50. You're looking at an initial startup cost of $750 to $900 -- which is about the difference between that Huffy and a pretty decent road bike. Would you rather get the best bike you can afford, or ride the Huffy with a tiny screen attached to your temples?

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