Opinion » Maxed Out

Maxed Out

Any fool can paint a picture, but it takes a wise man to sell it. Samuel Butler



Skiing and snowboarding, though passionately fun activities for those already converted, have about as much appeal to most people as major dental work. (Sorry Jay.)

To an inactive, obese, cocooning population that doesn’t like to get cold, the appeal of an outdoor winter activity that takes a commitment of time, energy, athleticism and discomfort to become proficient at is a serious nonstarter. This grim reality, coupled with the general need and desire to keep a stable workforce employed and in residence year ‘round is what drove Whistler to become a four-season resort. Well, that and wishful thinking.

But as has been conclusively shown this season, like it or not, at least for the foreseeable future this town’s fortunes rise and fall on the whims of those few who still ski and board. The multimillion dollar question then is this: How do we get more people up on the slopes, in the hotels, restaurants, bars and shops?

Clearly the answer is make skiing and boarding easier, more comfortable and up-to-date.

Let’s be honest, skiing hasn’t really progressed all that much technology-wise over the years. Since Howard Head finally figured out how to make metal skis with metal edges that would stay together, and plastics became more versatile, skis haven’t really evolved that much. In a world of virtual reality, micro-electronics, nanotechnology and manmade environments, skiing and boarding might as well be stuck in woolen knickers and knee sox time. It just isn’t hip.

But take heart! Help’s on the way. At this year’s big ski shindig in Las Vegas three things were absolutely clear. Major applications of cutting-edge technology are about to appear in the world of skiing. Fashion has edged out all other considerations when it comes to ski clothing except for the sub-niche of technothreads. And whacko inventors keep flooding the accessory and gimmick market with stuff about as useful as anchors on snowboards.

First up was Gamester’s new Mountain Dude game for the latest generation of Sony X-Box. Touted in the marketing literature as, "Finally, a game to get the youth of the nation off their fat asses and actually moving!!!", Mountain Dude is an interactive ski or snowboard game that provides "… real-life action and thrills of ripping and shredding."

Played on sensor pads resembling skis or a snowboard, the hyper-realistic, 3-D graphics lets porky wannabe mountain dudes and dudettes experience the thrill of extreme skiing, the jumps and jibs of pipe and park all without breaking a sweat or subjecting themselves to ridicule or serious injury.

"We predict," said Gamester’s CEO Sloof Lirpa, "Mountain Dude will lead to a whole lotta interest in real skiing and riding."

That remains to be seen. But over at the Salomon display, it was clear the French mountain sport superpower was busy addressing the "lesser fit" market as well. Touting them as breakthroughs in the marriage of micro-electronics and ski gear, Salomon introduced a new line of snowboard and ski boots dubbed Loafers.

"Easy to get on and easy to get off, Loafers take the huff and puff out of gearing up for a day on the slopes!" reads the product pamphlet. The key to both boots’ appeal is the use of small, powerful servo motors to, "… lock and load all at the touch of a button!"

Loafers look like normal boots, but employ Sof-Touch™ technology, making them easy-in and easy-out. The real magic of these boots though is in the credit card-size remote control. At the touch of a button, the servos automatically tighten or loosen each buckle individually on the ski boots and automatically tighten or loosen cleverly-hidden, foot-forming closures inside the snowboard boots.

"Whether you have trouble bending over because of age or gut, these babies make that bit of torture obsolete," cooed one of the comely Loafer display girls draped around the booth.

One aging and paunchy skier/journalist, thrilled at the breakthrough, summed up the appeal of Loafers in one breathless word. "Finally," he said, spraying those nearby with cracker crumbs.

Other staid, ancient ski gear is beginning to get technology makeovers. Leki is just a few patents and partnership deals away from rolling out their new line of PDA Poles. "Pretty Damn Attractive," one of the booth attendants winked, making a lame play on personal digital assistant which is, apparently, what PDA refers to in this case.

A joint venture with Canadian giant Research in Motion, the Leki PDA Pole marries Leki’s cutting-edge pole technology with RIM’s wildly popular Blackberry. Looking a bit like a marriage between ski poles and an accordion, the PDAs have split the Blackberry’s keyboard in half and built each half into easily manipulable, ergonomically perfect ski pole handles. Alpha-numeric and function buttons are arrayed over the top of each pole and in form-fitting finger pads.

"It takes most people a couple of hours to get proficient at text messaging with the poles," said a Leki rep. "Even less if you couple them with our new line of PDA gloves."

The gloves, employing what the company calls Smart Skin™ inserts in the fingertips, transmit virtually the same button-feel as wearing no gloves at all. Made of a leather Gore-Tex blend, the gloves are warm, dry and waterproof.

The PDA needs to be coupled with Oakley’s new Heads-Up Opticon line of goggles in order for users to make full use of the Blackberry’s versatile technology. Starting at a MSRP of CDN$250 the entry-level Heads-Up is a passive-interactive digital display employing infra-red technology to display signals from the PDAs onto the inner surface of the double-lens, antifog, mirrored goggle.

"It’s a great goggle and it’s a 16x9 format, colour digital display," said the Oakley rep. Coupled with the PDA, wearers can e-mail, phone, conference or surf the net while they shred the pow. "Although we highly recommend you text and surf only while you’re riding the chairlift," warned the rep.

Taking advantage of the same technology and a real-time feed from GPS satellites, the Oakley Coast Range goggle takes the same digital display technology to its extreme. Like handheld GPS wayfinders, the Coast Range comes with enough on-board memory to download a detailed, 3-D topographic map of any of several dozen popular ski mountains.

Visual sensors mounted inconspicuously on the goggles read ambient light and fog and when visibility drops to dangerously low levels, the goggles display a realtime readout of exactly what the wearer would see if the slopes in front of him were bathed in "… wondrous bright sunshine," reads the marketing literature.

"With a pair of Coast Ranges on your face, you can ski in pea soup fog with no fear, Dude," said the man from Oakley about the still to be priced goggles.

Asked if it was true the beta version of the goggles had been named Whistler and Intrawest honcho Big Joe Houssain had paid the company an undisclosed amount to drop the Whistler moniker, the rep replied, "What kind of fools do you think we are?"

April fools?