A NEW device may be joining smartphones, iPads and music players that you have to charge overnight: electronic eyeglasses. These glasses have tiny batteries, microchips and assorted electronics to turn reading power on when you need it and off when you don’t.
Traditionally, people who hit their 40s often need extra optical help as farsightedness sets in. They may buy bifocals or no-line progressive lenses. But such glasses have a drawback: the lenses that magnify fine print also blur objects more than an arm’s length away when a wearer looks down, distorting the view when on a staircase, for example, or when swinging at a golf ball.
The new electronic spectacles, called emPower, are intended to handle that problem with an unusual insert in the bottom part of the lenses: liquid crystals, cousins to the familiar ones in television displays. The crystals change how the lenses refract or bend light, just as varying levels of thickness do in traditional glasses.
To call up reading power in the new glasses, users touch the side of the frame. Batteries in the frame send along a current that changes the orientation of molecules in the crystals. Touch the side of the frame again, and the reading power disappears. Turn it off to hit a golf ball; turn it on to read the scorecard.
The glasses, made by PixelOptics in Roanoke, Va., will be on the market this spring — first in Virginia and North Carolina, and later in the year nationally, said Dr. Ronald Blum, an optometrist and the company’s president. The estimated price, $1,000 to $1,200, will include frames, lenses, coatings and charger.
Dr. Larry Wan, a managing partner at Family EyeCare Center in Campbell, Calif., tested the glasses with 10 of his patients, all in their 50s. He said they were a hit, for example, with people who had been bothered by blur as they walked down flights of stairs while wearing their glasses. “With these,” he said, “you can turn the reading power off, so they are safer and you don’t have that distortion.”
Of course, you’ll have to remember to charge them, a nuisance required by no ordinary pair of glasses. The charge lasts two to three days, said Larry Rodriguez, an executive at PixelOptics.
But you won’t have to worry if you drop them in the water. “Wipe them off and they should be fine,” he says, although they may require recharging.
The glasses have a parts list associated more with iPods than with optics. The transparent layer of liquid crystals and its electrode array are buried beneath the front surface of the lenses. The eyeglass frames have tiny microchips, rechargeable batteries and wires that supply electricity to the lenses. There are also built-in accelerometers, devices that sense the downward bend of a head, as though to look at a page, that can switch on the reading power automatically.
Although the eyeglasses are loaded with electronics, they don’t look that way, says Jack Loeb of Fisher Island, Fla., who is trying out a pair. “They look just like ordinary, high-end glasses,” he said.
Thirty-six different frames made by Aspex Eyewear will be offered initially, Mr. Rodriguez said. The electronic lenses are being manufactured by the Panasonic Healthcare Company in Japan. The lenses can be popped out and replaced if a prescription changes, Dr. Blum said.
The market for emPower glasses isn’t likely to include the young. “About 80 percent of the people wearing reading glasses are past 40,” said Steve Kodey, director of industry research at the Vision Council, a trade group for eyewear manufacturers and suppliers in Alexandria, Va. But the market is “much bigger than most people realize,” Mr. Kodey says.
Last year, some 20.6 million pairs of progressive lenses, and about 16.2 million pairs of bifocals, were sold in the United States.
If consumers buy emPowers instead of high-end progressive lenses, they will pay a premium. Even in high-end regular glasses, progressive lenses typically go for $300 to $400, Mr. Kodey said. And the average cost of frames is $125 (though there are many higher-cost options for the fashion-conscious.)
LIQUID crystals offer a promising way to bend light in glasses, says Larry Thibos, a professor of optometry at Indiana University, Bloomington, whose research for the last 20 years has included work on electronic spectacles.
“The concept is solid,” he said. You energize the crystals and you have a lens that will then vanish when the power goes off.
Dr. Thibos evaluated prototypes of the glasses for Dr. Blum a decade ago. “The glasses worked fine even then, but they looked geeky,” he said of early versions. The process of bringing the glasses to market — in a stylish form — took 12 years and roughly 275 patents, says Dr. Blum. Financing has been provided by Delphi Ventures, the Carlyle Group, Longitude Capital, Stark Investments, Panasonic Ventures and Life Science Angels, among others.
The work on the new lenses started with the liquid crystals in computers, not in spectacles. In 1999, Dr. Blum and his group were working on ways to help aging eyes read a computer screen. Originally, they had hoped to put the extra reading power directly into the liquid crystal display on the computers, which at that time had thick screens. But as the screens grew thinner, it was no longer practical to do so.
“So we had to take what we’d put into the computer screen and put it into your lenses,” Dr. Blum said.