We study a new formulation for the eikonal equation $|\nabla u| = 1$ on a bounded subset of $R^2$. Instead of a vector field $\nabla u$, we consider a field P of orthogonal projections on 1-dimensional subspaces, with $div P \in L^2$. We prove existence and uniqueness for solutions of the equation $P div P = 0$. We give a geometric description, comparable with the classical case, and we prove that such solutions exist only if the domain is a tubular neighbourhood of a regular closed curve. The idea of the proof is to apply a generalized method of characteristics introduced in  to a suitable vector field $m$ satisfying $P = m \otimes m$. This formulation provides a useful approach to the analysis of stripe patterns. It is specifically suited to systems where the physical properties of the pattern are invariant under rotation over 180 degrees, such as systems of block copolymers or liquid crystals.