When it comes to sports gadgets, swimmers have been pretty hard done to over the years. While cyclists, runners, even footballers, all have their own gadgets throwing out metrics in real-time, the number of dedicated products for swimming enthusiasts remains disappointingly low.
This is despite the fact that swimming remains the number one participation sport in the UK with 2.5 million people swimming in pools each week, according to figures from Sport England (even more if you include open water or wild swimming).
Sure, a number of smartwatches, including the Apple Watches from Series 2 onwards, will now calculate how many laps you've swum (even which stroke you've used) while waterproof MP3 players – or SwiMP3 players, like the excellent Finis DUO – provide underwater entertainment. But that’s really been about it. Until now.
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Recently introduced by Canadian company FORM are a pair of ‘smart goggles’ with a built-in Augmented Reality (AR) display, that can provide real-time performance information without you having to stop at look at your watch. It’s a really simple, yet clever, solution. But do they work?
Well yes, though they aren't perfect by any means. We tested the goggles in an outdoor pool over a number of weeks, and were generally very impressed.
Housed inside a large plastic case, the FORM goggles are inevitably much more bulky than standard goggles. All the electronics are located very neatly down one side of an eye-piece where you can find two small buttons – one at the front for switching the device on/off, one at the rear for toggling between various menu options (more of that later).
A special USB lead is provided for charging from your mains power with two small magnetic charging points on the goggles themselves. Up to 16 hours swimming can be provided from a single charge, which is very generous.
Given the extra bulk you might expect the goggles to be uncomfortable or difficult to wear in the water, but actually that’s not the case at all. Inside the pack are four nose bridges (small, large, extra small, extra large) to suit different faces, although we managed to use the standard medium-sized bridge provided with the goggles.
Leaking goggles is the curse of all swimmers from novice right through to professional, but we didn’t experience any problems. The suction cups remained firm throughout and didn’t let in any water. Nor did they hurt eyes at all when swimming, unlike some other goggles.
The only problem we did face was that, because the goggles are designed so you can view the built-in AR screen, there is very little peripheral vision. Instead it’s rather like looking down a tunnel when you swim.
As a result, we certainly wouldn’t recommend the FORM goggles when open water swimming, where you need to be able to see all around you, or in a very busy pool, unless you are swimming in a lane.
Easy to use app
As with most sports tech these days, the FORM goggles incorporate their own Android/iOS app where you can set up the device and monitor your swims, in more detail than the two metrics that are provided in the eye display during swimming.
On the top of the goggle display there’s the total amount of time you have swum and on the bottom you can choose from a range of options, including total distance, calories or length counter. Alternatively you can see your pace (how fast you are swimming 50 or 100m) or monitor your swimming efficiency by viewing the distance you are travelling per stroke and your stroke count per length.
Like other devices such as the Apple Watch, a built in accelerometer automatically knows when you are turning so the lengths can be counted accurately (it works with tumble/flip turns too) and can even figure out which stroke you are swimming – freestyle (front crawl), backstroke, breaststroke or butterfly.
In addition to the information provided in your eye display during swimming, the app stores masses of data about each of your swims, including your splits (how fast you've completed each length and each 100m), the stroke you used, the overall time you swam and the number of calories you burnt. You can even mark the location for each swim using the app’s huge database and share all of this information via the app with friends, should you choose.
Using the goggles in the water is reasonably straightforward. Once you've put them on your face, simply press the small power button to switch on the display. Either you can view the display in your right eye or change the settings on the app, or the goggles themselves, to view it in your left eye.
As we swim mostly in an outdoor pool, and were testing the goggles in summer, we assumed the lack of brightness may be a problem, but the yellow display was more than bright enough in standard mode. What’s more, you can change the brightness setting either in the app or on the goggles (we recommend using the app as it can be quite fiddly trying to toggle through various menus in the water).
Once you have switched the goggles on, you have the option of setting up the pool size (we used the standard 25m) and choosing the type of swim – lap swim if you are just swimming up and down, or intervals for structured swimming work-outs. Then you just press a button again to start your swim.
As the FORM goggles have a built-in motion detector they will only time your swim from when you move off the wall and will pause if you rest at the end of the pool for a break. However, at the end of each workout you need to remember to save and quit manually, otherwise your swim won’t be stored.
There’s no doubt the FORM goggles really raise the bar when it comes to swimming tech. Unfortunately they’re not suitable for open water swimming because their design means you can’t see very clearly around you (only straight ahead). Also, unlike smart watches, they don’t store GPS information, so it’s not possible to use them to track an open water swim. They are also a little bit fiddly if you need to change settings in the water.
However, if you are pool swimmer who wants to monitor your progress, we definitely would recommend them. We particularly liked being able to see how fast we swam each length (this information flashes up each time you turn) and how many lengths we had swum overall, because it’s so easy to lose count when you are ploughing up and down.
At $199 (about £160, AU$300) they’re certainly not cheap, but it’s a price that many swimming enthusiasts would be prepared to pay for the information they provide.