My dad and I took up rogaining (24 hr cross-country navigation) back in 1998. At the time I was a highschooler and it was a pretty good sport for a father and son team to do together. On our first event we walked about 60km and spent a lot of time in the dark. We carried these great big 6V dolphin torches which had a great beam of light, but my word they were heavy! Cumbersome too! You had to carry them in your hands along with your map and compass and it made it very hard to get a muesli bar out of your pocket.
Then we noticed that everyone else had these stupid-looking lights attached to their heads. So for my birthday, Dad got me my very own ‘Petzl Zoom’. It was the best headlight in the world! Nothing could compare. You screwed it in for a wide beam and out to focus it. Everyone at the time seemed to have one. The standard procedure was to throw away the bulb that came with it and upgrade to a halogen. The halogen put out much more light but it chewed through your battery quicker too. It was a huge and clunky thing by today’s standards but nothing else came close to it in raw power.
Light is so important when you’re rogaining or adventure racing, so I was always ready to upgrade it as soon as something better came along. The problem was, that nothing ever did! A few improvements were made in the industry. Little 5mm LEDs became popular for low-power walking lights and the Petzl Duo and others incorporated this idea. This was a great advantage because you could save your battery while walking and then turn the halogen on for spotting a checkpoint in the distance. The big mistake they all made however (in my perfectly wise opinion), was that they made the halogen’s reflector so small that it lost all its range. The original zoom had a huge reflector and you needed it to efficiently throw all the light 80m down the track. I think what Petzl, Black Diamond and every other manufacturer did, was make their headlights smaller, cuter and more streamlined and this meant that the big old reflectors had to go.
So I never upgraded my Petzl Zoom because all the newer versions were worse. It seemed like bringing out a brand new Ferrari, with better suspension and a lighter chassis, but with a 1.2L 4-cylinder engine because big engines are going out of fashion.
Then the LED technology emerged and I was very skeptical. I always thought LEDs were for telling you that you computer was turned on, not for trying to find a broad spur in the bush at 3am. They weren’t bad, that is, they weren’t any worse than the halogens with their neutered reflectors, but they weren’t anything like my old Zoom. I got so angry at the shop staff trying to tell me that these little 1 and 3 watt LEDs could shine a long way, when they clearly couldn’t hold a candle to my zoom.
I was getting rather annoyed at the whole industry. Why couldn’t they see that there was a need for long-distance headlights? So I started fiddling around on my own. Naturally I thought the way forward was more power, so I started overloading my little halogen (this meant filling up my backpack with batteries but I thought it was worth it at the time) but the poor bulbs kept blowing up. So I tried to find bigger halogens and ways of jamming them into my 10 year old headlight.
After a bit of research, I discovered that a company called CREE had started producing really efficient LEDs. In particular, they came out with the XR-E. This little thing was a beast! at 3.7V you could safely pump a whole 1A through it get out a whopping 250 lumens of light! For a comparison, the Petzl zoom only ever gave about 40 lumens. So I found a place to buy them and bought some sophisticated circuitry to go with it. Put it in the Zoom and ….. it was terrible. Didn’t give anything like the power I was hoping for.
The problems were many. These LEDs need to be kept cool and the big plastic body of the Zoom just wouldn’t let that happen. They also put all their light forwards instead of sideways like the halogen did, so the reflector didn’t collect much of it. A bit more research and I discovered Total Internal Reflection (TIR) optics were the thing to use with LEDs, but they didn’t do much better. Firstly they were all too small (ie 15-25mm). I wanted a big 50mm one to compete with the Zoom’s 50mm reflector. Of course these TIR reflectors are solid plastic so they’d get really heavy even if somone did make one that big. They also don’t do a great job of collimating all the light that gets thrown forward from the LED. They still mainly grab the small % that gets thrown sideways.
A bit more research and I discovered the same technology that projectors have been using for years. The lens. This is what sets my headlights apart from everything that has gone before. I found some projector lenses and stuck one infront of the LED. The LED got stuck on a bit of aluminium window frame (to stop it overheating) and I taped it all to my Dad’s head for the next rogaine. It looked stupid. Even worse than the old zoom.
For the next year, people kept telling me to start a business, because there was no headlight on the market with even half the range of this pile of junk taped to my dad’s head.