Could adjustable optic eyewear be the future of glasses? That has been a question asked by more than a few scientists and businessmen for at least a decade. The answer seems to depend on where you are and what you need. To many, the idea seems to solve more than one problem with a single answer. This technology could eliminate the optical distortion caused by bifocals, it could allow for hands free adjustment for up-close delicate work such as surgery or jewelry-smithing, and it could also allow for substantially cheaper eyeglasses for people in the poorer less developed countries of the world.
The field of variable optic lenses is not a new one; it was first pioneered in 1879 by French physician, Dr. Cusco, who held the patent for the first liquid-filled variable power lens. In 1967, Luis Walter Alvarez created a two-element variable-power spherical lens, which was made of two optical plates that, when re-positioned across each other, would produce a change in optical power. Finally in 1989, an engineering group released a paper on the fundamentals of liquid crystal electro-active lenses to the Society of Photo-Optical Instrumentation Engineers.
In 2006 while at the University of Arizona, professor Guoqiang Li helped to develop a switchable-focus lenses. When first announced this technology was looked upon with great enthusiasm. Imagine being able to switch from normal to close up focus, in a fraction of a second. “We have demonstrated switchable liquid crystal diffractive lenses with high diffraction efficiency, high optical quality, rapid response time, and diffraction limited performance.” While the idea was met with great excitement when this technology finally hit the market through PixelOptics in 2011, the Empower variable focus eyewear’s price tag of 1200$ U.S. was not. Due to this, the company folded in 2013. Sadly this has been the fate of almost all of the “electronic” variable optic glasses.
However, the same cannot be said for the analogue varieties. Both the Alvarez design and adjustable liquid-filled lenses have both met with commercial success in the recent years thanks to modern digital design and advanced manufacturing techniques. While some analogue variable glasses have gone the way of Empower such as the Superfocus glasses, others have made huge strides in providing inexpensive eyewear to the world’s poorest. In 2011, Dr. Josh Silver from The Centre for Vision in the Developing World began a project to distribute 50,000 adjustable lens glasses to 12- 18 years old’s in developing countries in order to help improve the conditions of education and self-empowerment. With the help of local schools, a child could be issued a pair of glasses and then return them when they have outgrown them and the glasses could be adjusted to the next student. This allows the glasses to be reused and reduces the over-all cost to the community. Thanks to such development, now there is more than one affordable commercial choice available on the market. All which threaten to push bifocals, trifocals and progressive lenses into the oblivion of history.