Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Electric Sunglasses

How do people survive without sunglasses? When I watch movies and documentaries I'm always amazed to see people running around all naked-eyed, for the camera I assume, in terribly bright conditions, doing things like hiking across glaciers, or wind-sailing through sand dunes at high noon. They don't even look like they're squinting. How do they do that? Why don't these people go blind from the glare, or at least wind up with a massive migraine? I don't know, maybe they do end up in pain, but consider it worth it to forward their on-camera careers, or maybe the brilliant conditions simply don't bother them. It could be they like having the world so brightly lit and sunglasses would only hinder their view. Crazy if you ask me, but then I am extremely light sensitive. When I step out my door in the four reliable months of sunshine a year we get here in beautiful green Western Oregon, my sunglasses are my best friend. I head out, they pop on. Fact of life.

Popping on a pair of sunglasses isn't so straightforward for some people, though. Some, like my husband, are already wearing glasses--the kind that help him focus--and he can't just slip any old pair of UV protectant shades over his regular eye-wear. He's got to have over-the-glasses glasses. This used to mean wearing what we always called "old man glasses." They were the only option for a long time, these huge, ugly eyesores that made it look like he had just come from the eye doctor and was still recovering from the drops that make your pupils dilate. He always hated wearing those, but since he can't wear contacts he didn't have much choice in the eye-wear department. There were also a few of the clip-on variety, but they never fit his glasses very well, and still looked pretty awful. It's only been in the last decade or so that he's gotten some better options. The companies that make the frames started putting out glasses that come with their own clip-on, or magnetic, perfectly sized-to-fit sunglasses that actually look good. This has been a vast improvement. They not only look "normal," but they don't fall off because they are too big for his glasses, or the hooks are in the wrong places. The only trick with them is keeping track of them, and remembering to bring them, but that's something we all have to do, so no sympathy points for that.

His latest option in eye protection, however, actually takes the remembering out of the equation too. He recently got Transitions lenses for the first time, and he loves them. Now there are no sunglasses to fiddle with at all. His regular glasses simply darken when he heads outside and they become his sunglasses. There's some sort of chemical reaction that takes place, and voila, instant shades. There are a couple drawbacks still; they don't change when he's in the car, because the UV protection in the windshield keeps the glasses from doing their chemical magic, and sometimes they take quite a while to lighten up again when he comes back in. All in all, though, this is the best he's had it in the eye protection department in his whole life. It actually makes me a little jealous. My sunglasses don't lighten and darken to adjust to variations in the light level. For me it's either on or off, no fancy chemical wizardry to enhance my viewing pleasure. I suppose I could buy some Transitions lenses with no vision correction to them, but it would be a ridiculous amount of money to spend, and as soon as I had spent it that would be the pair I would lose. No, the rest of us don't have the "magic option" in our sunglasses.

That is all about to change, though. Science Daily has a report about innovations coming out of the University of Washington that are not only going to make it possible for the rest of us to affordably adjust the light levels in our sunglasses, but, in a nod to the fashion conscious, the color as well. Chunye Xu is a research assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Washington, and she said that despite their advances, new glasses being designed at UW will not be very differently priced than current options. These new glasses, though, will certainly work on different principles. How many sunglasses do you own that run on a watch battery? These do, using an electric current, triggered by a small dial on the glasses' frame:

Researchers made the glasses using electrochromic materials that change transparency depending on the electric current. Many groups, including the UW, are developing such materials for so-called "smart windows" that could soon be used in energy-efficient homes and offices. Most smart windows use liquid-crystal technology or inorganic oxides. Those materials are expensive to produce and require a constant or frequent injection of power to hold their tint. The UW glasses are based on a new type of smart window using organic, rather than inorganic, oxides. These are cheaper to manufacture and require less power.

The prototype glasses are powered by a watch battery that attaches to the glasses frame, and the wearer spins a tiny dial on the arm of the glasses to change color or shade. The lenses were created by sandwiching a gel between two layers of electrochromic material. Applying a small voltage moves charged particles from one layer to another, and changes the transparency. Once the glasses are a certain tint they will stay that way without power for about 30 days. A single watch battery is able to power thousands of transitions, Xu said.

Interesting that the organic component is what makes the new adaptable lenses more affordable, eh? It's the organic molecules that also allow the glasses to change color. As the technology is perfected, more layers will be added to expand the color options available in a single pair of glasses. The pair constructed by the UW team adjusts through a range of blues, but the plan is to broaden the spectrum to include more of the rainbow. It's not just about fashion, either. The Science Daily article says that yellow lenses, "enhance contrasts and improve depth perception," and those rose-colored lenses, often considered the eye-glasses of choice for the naive and optimistic, "brighten low-light scenes." (How appropriate. I consider this proof that those cheerful people "wearing rose-colored glasses" actually see better than their gloomier counterparts, which is happy confirmation of my general world view.) Eventually we'll be able to pick up an affordable pair of completely adjustable outdoor eye-wear. The new lenses will adjust quickly, too. While my husband's lenses still take a little while to make the switch back to indoor conditions, the new battery-powered variety will make the switch in a second or two. Electric sunglasses--Cool, huh?

I want a pair!! I'd say I want two pair, but what would be the point? One pair would cover every possible light condition and color option, so once you settle on a frame that suits your face, what's more to need? (unless you are one of those people who have a hundred pair of shoes in your closet--I assume you will want at least a dozen different frame options as well.) The only disappointing thing about the new glasses is that they're not ready for prime-time yet. Science Daily says it'll be a few years before the glasses make it to market. Wah! I want an Umpa Lumpa now, Daddy!! Oh well. It's still cool, lenses that change color and darken on command. Hey, won't it be fun if they make "lenses" like that for the windows of your house? You could have "mood windows." If they could figure out a way to toss in some nanoparticle solar collectors, too, so that the windows (or the sunglasses for that matter) powered themselves, we would be heading into perfection territory. Oh, wait a minute--perfection territory will be when they make it possible to apply this imaginary nanotechnology to your eyes themselves, so you don't need sunglasses at all, but can change the light input and color of your eyes at will!! Of course, that will require a mental interface. None of us want a little dial on the side of our heads, now do we?

Hat tip: Futurismic