Pixel optics - bifocals of the future, today
A layer of transparent LCD creates bifocals you can turn on and off electronically.

Move over Ben Franklin, we finally have a replacement for bifocals. Virginia-based Pixel Optics has developed a composite lens that can change the range of focus electronically. The emPower! glasses were created in cooperation with Panasonic Healthcare, and allow you to switch between long distance and short distance vision in a split second. Rather than having a lens divided into two sections, emPower! uses an LCD overlay that can change the focal length of the glasses via electric current. When the LCD layer is off, your lenses are good for intermediate/long distances. Turn the LCD layer on, and a section of the lens is suddenly magnifying close-up images – perfect for reading. emPower! lets you switch back and forth between near and far by touching the sides of the frames. Or you can engage an accelerometer that will automatically switch between modes depending on whether you are looking up or down. Gizmodo grabbed a great look at the emPower lens in action at this year’s CES in Las Vegas – check it out in the short video below. Starting this April, you could have a pair of your very own for $1200 or more. Pretty expensive, but these glasses are just too cool to ignore.

Here’s a prediction that I’m also certain will come true: in the future, you will be older. Related prediction: you’re probably going to need glasses. Starting around age 40, many adults develop presbyopia, the condition that keeps your eyes from being able to focus on close-up objects. For millions of people around the world this inevitably leads to reading glasses, or bifocals if you already have bad vision. The trouble is that near-focus lenses tend to have a very short depth of view (a few feet at most) and this screws with your ability to see the world around you. Many people end up having to put their reading glasses on and take them off dozens of times a day. The alternative, using bifocals (or trifocals or progressive lenses) can make you dizzy or otherwise disorientated as you get used to looking at one area of your vision for far-sight and another for near-sight. The simple act of reading a menu at dinner or taking the stairs while talking to friends can become frustrating (or even dangerous) activities.

Reactive lenses like emPower! are a great step forward. With the accelerometer engaged, the glasses switch back and forth between far and close vision “as fast as a blink” whenever you look up or down. In other words, they help your eyes behave as younger ones already do. In the following video from CES, you can see the view through a demonstration lens. Notice how the ‘reading section’ – the oval in blue – changes focus back and forth. You won’t be able to see that here, but imagine the same thing occurring whenever you paused to look down at a menu, set of stairs, Roomba, etc.


You can also watch a simulated comparison between traditional bifocals and emPower lenses on the Pixel Optics site.

Inside the emPower! glasses are composite lenses formed from different materials. One is a classic optical plastic that you would find in many traditional lenses. The other is a section of transparent LCD connected to an electronic system embedded in the frames. When a current is applied, the LCD section alters its index of refraction – essentially changing it to a near-distance focal length. You engage the LCD section manually by sliding your finger backwards along the ear piece of the glasses, and disengage by swiping forward. Touching the side of the glasses for two seconds activates the accelerometer and the automatic focusing depending on head position. All the electronics are completed enclosed within the frame so there’s no worry about destroying them by dropping them in water. The batteries in emPower! are made to last about 30 hours and you recharge the system through an inductive charger. Overall, I would say I’m pretty impressed by the glasses.

Pixel optics - bifocals of the future
The induction charger (left) and several frame styles on display at CES 2011.

That being said, I still think emPower! is far from perfect. First, we have to consider the price: $1200 is the starting level (that includes all the charging peripherals). Prices can go up depending on lens coatings, frame design, etc. That’s going to be 20-30% above the most advanced traditional lenses on the market. Second, you’re still going to need a prescription. The main lenses have to be fit to your vision, so that means if your vision deteriorates over time, you’ll have to replace your glasses. Not sure if that means $1200 each time or not. But you could be talking thousands of dollars a year depending on your rate of vision-decline. Finally, I’m not sure why the area of near vision is a small oval, but it seems like it would be better for that section to be larger. Maybe I’m missing out on something here because I don’t wear bifocals, but if my glasses can switch between near and far automatically, why do I need to keep the far-distance vision section when I’m looking down?

While I’m pointing out the negatives, I should mention that the marketing people at Pixel Optics seem to be stuck in the 1980s. Do you really need to put an exclamation point in your product name? (emPower! sounds like a musical about voter’s rights.) And don’t go looking to their YouTube channel for any good visuals of how the glasses work, all you’ll get is endless talking heads describing how cool their product is going to be. How hard is it to just show us the lens in action?! Really, it’s like you’ve designed your entire marketing campaign towards my grandparents…

…oh. Well, carry on then.

Yeah, I’m not entirely sold on Pixel Optics, but the basic concept here is undeniably cool. Lenses that alternate between focal lengths automatically – that’s like Science Fiction 101. Hopefully the prices will come down before I hit 40 and need a pair of my own. As the technology improves I think we’ll see glasses that can hit several different focal lengths, maybe even in a continuum. That way, everyone could buy the same pair and just adjust them to fit your range of vision. There’s probably also some applications here in binoculars and other optics. I’m not sure if active-focus electronic lenses will mature before glasses with embedded video arrive in force. If they do, emPower! could become a staple of senior citizen centers everywhere. If they don’t, we’re likely to see augmented reality and wearable cameras make such technology obsolete. I guess what I’m saying is, Pixel Optics, sell your glasses quickly. There’s an aging populace out there that could end up buying millions of these things, but wait too long, and you’ll miss the window of opportunity.

Oh, and drop the exclamation point. Please!!!!!

[screen capture credit: Pixel Optics]
[image credit: Gizmodo]

[source: Pixel Optics and press release, Gizmodo]