Drivers on phones, diesel on corners, changing road surfaces and that ever-present threat of dopey oncoming traffic – motorcyclists have quite enough to worry about without having to stare constantly down at their speedometers. But with speed enforcement cranking up in many areas worldwide, there has never been a greater calling for a motorcycle heads-up display that can keep information in view without being a distraction. There are a bunch of different companies racing to get an integrated HUD helmet to the market, but there's only one company that has a working HUD solution out there, for sale, right now. Loz Blain spends some time with Britain's BikeHUD.

People have been talking about motorcycle heads-up displays for a long time. There's a bit of a race on between Skully, Reevu and Livemap to decide who gets the first integrated-HUD helmet to market, each group tackling the challenge from slightly different angles. Then there's Nuviz, which is building a stick-on jigger that fits to the chin piece of any helmet.

The integrated helmets all look very expensive – up to US$2,000 (the projected price of the Livemap) – and knowing helmets, they'll fit some heads better than others. And as fancy as all their Kickstarter project photoshopped efforts might look, none of them have got anything to the market yet.

British startup BikeHUD actually does have a product you can buy right now; a retro-fit device that will mount to just about any helmet, and it costs $485, or $549 when optioned up with the GPS navigation kit and speed camera warning system.

I've been playing with one for several weeks now, so let's have a look at how it works.

Installing BikeHUD on your bike

The BikeHUD system is a slightly invasive installation on your bike. The key bike-mounted components are the BikeHUD ECU itself, wired into your ignition circuit, and a handlebar-mounted GPS sensor that also acts as your four-button control interface.

BikeHUD reads your speed through its own GPS, takes an engine tacho reading off a sensor coiled around one of your spark plugs, and splices into the bike's wiring to get a hold of your indicator signals and neutral light.

The GPS sat-nav Wi-Fi dongle plugs in to a USB cable hanging off the main ECU, and splices into the BikeHUD wiring for power. It also comes with a USB socket you can use to charge your phone on the go.

As I have the electrical aptitude of a stoat that also has no electrical aptitude, I was assisted in the installation by 2012 British National Natural Beard, Styled Moustache champion Matthew Brown, who taught me several new swear words in the process.

Installing BikeHUD on your helmet

At the helmet end, you get the "monocle," which fits into your lid on a flexible arm that's mounted to a bracket that BikeHUD builds custom for any lid. In the case of my Nolan N104, the bracket fits perfectly and is held solidly in place by one of my cheek pad press studs. It's easy to add or remove.

You adjust the monocle so it sits just underneath one eye, just touching your cheek. If you close the other eye, it obscures the area of view you'd normally be looking down at your motorcycle's dash with, but you can still see that with your other eye and the whole purpose of the BikeHUD is to make your dash completely redundant anyway.

The mounting bracket sits way off near the edge of your peripheral vision, and it's visible, but it doesn't cut off sight at the very edges where you really need to see for lane checks etc.

The monocle is attached to a "pendant" (could this device sound any more British?) on a long, thick cable, and the pendant plugs into an HDMI port poking out of the BikeHUD ECU. You sort of have to bundle most of the pendant and cabling up in your jacket to keep it out of the way.

Configuring BikeHUD

On startup, the system gets you to run through a bunch of fairly simple options. Which way up, miles or kilometers, check your ignition settings so the tacho reads properly, that sort of thing. You're then able to nominate a number of "speed bands" so that, for example, your speedo will read in white from 0-40 km/h, blue from 40-60 km/h, red from 60-80 km/h, etc.

At this point it's time to tell BikeHUD how many gears you've got, and calibrate them by riding around at a constant speed in each gear so the system can use your revs and speed to figure out the gear ratios. And then you're up and running.

Riding with BikeHUD

The system does pretty much what it says on the tin, putting information right in front of your eye as you ride along.

The GPS updates your digital speedo quite snappily, and the color banding is a very nice touch that means you don't have to glance down to figure out when you hit the speed limit, provided you can remember what color each speed limit is.

The virtual gear position sensor is another treat – it works quickly and flawlessly. It's not a big deal on my old Yamaha Fazer 1000, but would be super handy on a racetrack or certain late model big twins where I tend to find myself getting lost in the gearbox.

The tacho … well, it's a little slow to update and I didn't find it all that useful. Mind you, I rarely use the tacho on a bike anyway unless I'm on a racetrack and going so fast I can't hear the revs.

It's difficult to get a photo that shows what the HUD looks like to use, so take this one with a grain of salt, as it's an ultra wide angle GoPro photo:

BikeHUD has chosen to implement a "rule of three" with the information display, with only three pieces of information displayed at any one time. Speed is always shown, and by default you'll also have gear position and tacho. Putting an indicator on cancels your tacho, speed camera warnings pop up in place of your gear position, and your speedo flashes to indicate that you're running out of fuel – which isn't from a fuel tank sensor, you just put in your bike's approximate range. I'm not a fan of this feature and wished I could turn it off.

Turn by turn navigation and speed camera warnings

BikeHUD's Dave Vout points out to me that the navigation system is still very much in beta release. Using MapQuest mapping, the eyepiece flashes up street names and turn directions along with the odd distance warning.

I found visual navigation to be very hit and miss – even on a familiar route I sometimes couldn't make a lot of sense of the instructions. The BikeGPS software also sends out audio signals, which you can stream through your phone's Bluetooth connection or hear through headphones plugged into a hidden 3.5 mm headphone jack in the BikeHUD pendant.

BikeGPS can also give you warnings when you're approaching the location of a fixed speed camera, provided the camera is logged in MapQuest. That's certainly a nifty feature.

A work in progress

This system has a number of problems that keep it from feeling like a great step forward from the ol' motorcycle dash.

Firstly, the monocle itself. It feels intrusive and it needs to be perfectly positioned to be readable. Even when it is readable, it's not bright enough to register in my peripheral vision, except at night. That means I've got to glance down at it to read it – even for the big speedo number, let alone to read navigation directions. As it turns out, it's actually less difficult for me to just glance down at the dash than to peer into the monocle.

Day mode, which inverts the screen so it's all lit up and the numbers are black, is a slight improvement, but not enough. And the monocle's resolution is terrible, so the numbers don't appear sharp. Vout points out that this low-res screen could actually be advantageous. Governments around the world are already starting to crack down on things like Google Glass that could distract a driver. BikeHUD's late-80s hand held pac-man resolution can clearly never be used to play a movie or check Facebook, and that could actually help it gain regulatory acceptance.

Then there's the pendant, which hangs nearly two meters (6.5 ft) of thick HDMI cable out of your lid. I got it caught on a gate once, because even when you stuff it down your jacket, there's still a loop hanging out where you plug it in. I'm not normally one to care about fashion, but it looks dorky, as well.

Then there's the connectors themselves – the HDMI cable that pokes out from under your seat isn't weatherproof. There's a little plastic cap to put on it, but it's easily lost (guilty!) and if you get water into it, it can cause the display to go haywire.

And finally the handlebar-mounted switches and interface of the thing. Buttons need a very firm press to register, you've got to guess a bit which unmarked button will do what, and things are a bit slow to update on the screen. Granted, you don't have to press them very often, but it contributes to a dated feel.

Moving forward

Vout is aware of these early issues, and plans to address them as the product develops. Early adopters will be looked after, as BikeHUD will buy back older versions of the hardware if existing customers wish to update.

The planned updates include:

  • November 2014: the launch of an Android app for BikeGPS
  • January 2015: launch of a smartphone app to configure and control BikeHUD (replacing the clunky menu system)
  • April 2015: launch of a new monocle that will be transparent, and wireless OR wired, and will have an on-board battery good for 3-4 hours of riding
  • April 2015: onboard camera option, with forward and rear view, video recording and Wi-Fi file transfer

BikeHUD is far from a perfect product, it's not slick or streamlined. It doesn't come with fancy packaging or a big budget marketing push. It's the vision of one guy and a small team, who's not afraid to let his growing pains go public. Dave Vout would prefer to get something out there and develop it in response to user feedback, rather than spend millions developing what he thinks customers will want.

It's a gutsy, transparent and honest way to do business, but the product's not up to snuff yet. It is, however the only motorcycle HUD that's out there for sale right now, and it's custom tailored to fit pretty much any helmet. We look forward to seeing how things develop, particularly with the wireless, transparent monocle due next April.

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