Updated August 2019. The Garmin Varia Vision was the first exciting innovation in a new breed of wearable technology – a HUD (Heads Up Device) specifically for cyclists. In a nutshell, it enables you to look at information from your Garmin Edge bike computer or your Garmin Edge Varia radar – WITHOUT taking your eyes off the road to look down at your handlebars. The information is projected on a tiny screen that connects to the side of your cycling glasses, so that you focus on the road all the time, and just glance over to the side to read your data.
Cycling Safety in Three Ways
Garmin offers three products that aim to improve cyclist safety: Smart bike lights, Rearview radar and Varia Vision.
Why would you want a Garmin Varia Vision?
These are expensive gadgets, so why would you want one? Clearly, it is a safety issue. For example, one of the times I like to look at my Garmin Edge bike computer is when I am going really fast (to see how fast I am going). But that’s really not a good time to take your eyes off the road. Being able to check your speed – and other metrics – without looking down is a big safety plus. That’s the focus of this video:
Another reason is age-related. Did you know that by the age of 50, almost everyone has presbyopia? Yeah, I didn’t know that either, until it happened to me. It’s a fancy word for a normal part of ageing: the lenses of our eyes lose elasticity. When we are young, we can look from something nearby (like the bike computer on our handlebars), then immediately look at something far (like the next turn in a mountainous downhill road) – and our lenses will instantly adjust to enable us to see both clearly. When we are not-so-young, our lenses gradually become physically incapable of doing this. We can correct our vision with glasses, but we cannot make our lenses elastic again. That’s why some people wear progresses, bifocals or trifocals, while others have one set of glasses for reading and another for cycling.
I have gone with the last option, because I could not get used to progressives. But there is a problem. When I am wearing my prescription Adidas cycling glasses (reviewed here), I can see the road perfectly – BUT I cannot read the words on my Garmin Edge bike computer. To actually read what it says, I have to stop and lift my glasses out of the way. Really hard to do when wearing a bike helmet.
I watched this YouTube video review of the Garmin Varia Vision, and the reviewer said that $399 is way too much to pay for the luxury of not having to look down. I would agree with that, but what he missed (probably because he is so young that he has never even heard of presbyopia) is that it is NOT a luxury for those who are simply unable to read the words on their bike computers any more.
Over the last few years I have become a bit depressed about not being able to see my bike computer. Yet another aspect of ageing that no one warned me about. To be fair, if we told young people ALL the things that are going to happen when they age, we’d probably have mass youth suicide on our hands. In any event, I was thrilled to find that there IS still a way to see what my bike computer is trying to tell me, thanks to the advanced wearable technology in the Garmin Varia Vision.
The question was, would it work, or would it just be another distraction on my bike ride?
Fitting the Garmin Varia Vision
It was a cinch to fit the Garmin Varia Vision to my Adidas cycling glasses. One of the things that Garmin truly excels at are lightweight mounts that work, and work well. The device weighs 7 oz, which did not worry me at all. My head did NOT start listing to the right! Also, it did not obscure my side vision.
Using the Garmin Varia Vision
Most of the current crop of Garmin Edge bike computers work with the Garmin Varia Vision (with the exception of the tiny ones, the 20 and the 25). It is also compatible with the Garmin Varia Rearview Radar Tail Light (which tells you when cars are coming, and tries to remind motorists that you exist, by blinking red lights at them).
Essentially, the Garmin Varia Vision will mirror whatever data is displayed on any of these devices. What I found was great was to put the Garmin Edge 530 into scrolling mode, so that I could see all of my relevant metrics, without having to change screens. I also liked just setting it to my primary display page, which has the five metrics most important to me.
I did not test the Garmin Varia Vision with the Garmin Varia Rearview Radar Tail Light, because I don’t have one. I find a twelve dollar rear-view mirror works just fine to see if there are cars behind me.
However, I have seen the Garmin Varia Vision used with the Rearview Radar Tail Light, and it works well.
Navigation Prompts on the Garmin Varia Vision
Without a doubt, the most useful aspect of this setup is that you can follow turn-by-turn prompts without looking down at your handlebars. The prompts include a visual and auditory prompt to warn you when a turn is coming up. There is also a prompt if you miss a turn.
However, there is a bit of a catch 22 here. The Edge 520 is not optimized for navigation. So you need to first download a course to it, from Garmin Connect, or Strava (if you have a Strava premium account). Then you can use your Edge 520 and Garmin Varia Vision to be directed, and it’s pretty magic. PLUS, the Garmin Varia Vision has an integrated vibration motor. This really works well for me, as I often don’t hear the beeps (is my hearing failing too?). And seeing the visual prompt via the Garmin Varia Vision is really great.
Of course, it’s even better if you have a Garmin Edge 1030 or 830, as both of those are optimized for navigation. You just select your destination, and the Garmin Edge 1030 or 830 will figure out a route and tell you how to get there.
Quality of the display on the Garmin Varia Vision
The colors and resolution of the display on the Garmin Varia Vision are truly awesome. I could not figure out any way to photograph it, but it’s better than any comparable display I have ever seen.
What it’s Like to Use the Garmin Varia Vision
This product has made me very excited about the future of wearable technology. The Garmin Varia Vision is Google Glass for cyclists. Employees at Boeing now use Google Glass to build air planes, and that this has increased production and reduced errors. So clearly they are just fine with seeing two different visuals. However, those are skilled engineers. I was not so sure how well I would do. Especially since I tried and failed to master those little rear view mirrors that clip to your helmet. Even though I see lots of people using them, and they are a best seller on Amazon.
Bottom Line on the Garmin Varia Vision
This is a great device that works perfectly with the Garmin Edge 520 (and the Edge 1000 and the Varia radar). However, it is expensive. And of course, so far it only pairs with three devices, so if you don’t have one of those, it would not be much use. Obviously this situation will change over time, but it has not yet changed. Deciding to buy one of these will most likely come down to three questions:
- Do you cycle a lot?
- Can you afford it?
- Do you need it?
In my case, I could say “Yes” to all three of those questions. But ten years ago, when I could still see my bike computer by glancing down at my handlebars, I don’t think I needed it enough to justify the price tag.
As with all these gadget decisions, it will come down to whether the item seems important enough to you to justify the price. And with the price of the Garmin Varia Vision, most buyers are likely to have a long, hard think about that one. Still, when it comes to safety, many of us are willing to spend some money …
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