High-Tech Eyeglasses, Not Made by Google

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If someone mentions the phrase "high-tech glasses," you probably assume they're talking about Google Glass, the smartphone-on-a-headband that Google hopes to offer for sale next year.

The truth is, though, that 2013 has been the Year of the High-Tech Glasses in other, quieter ways. At least three new eyeglass technologies have arrived. They're not intended to bring the Internet to your eyeball. They have a more traditional goal: improving your vision.

Here's a look at three.

Adlens variable focus glasses. Yes, it's an unfortunate name; Adlens glasses may be the one place in today's world where you won't encounter advertising.

"Ad," in this case, is short for "adjustable"; these are variable-focus glasses. The lenses of the Lennon and Hemispheres styles ($80 and $100; adlens.com) are filled with liquid, and cylindrical plastic knobs protrude from the sides. By turning the knobs, you precisely adjust the liquid pressure on a curved membrane inside the lens, affecting its power (from – 4.5 to +3.5 diopters). They can handle even severe nearsightedness or farsightedness. They don't work for the blurriness of astigmatism, but they're perfect for presbyopia (better known as "over-40-reading-glasses-syndrome").

There are distinct advantages to variable-focus glasses like these. First, you can tweak the lenses independently for each eye. Second, you can adjust them for different situations -- tired eyes often need more help -- or even different people. They're a natural for restaurants, which can hand them out to patrons who've forgotten their reading glasses.

Third, you can adjust them yourself, without requiring an eye doctor or a prescription. That's a big deal in poor countries like Rwanda, where, Adlens says, there are 10 million people but only 14 optometrists. Even though a million Rwandans need glasses, almost nobody has them, according to the company. When you buy a pair of these glasses, Adlens donates a pair for distribution in Rwanda.

The Lennon and Hemisphere styles look goofy because the lenses are perfect circles, like half dollars, which isn't a design that will suit many faces. (They're available in a wide range of frame colors and lens tints.)

Furthermore, the adjustment knobs are big, ribbed and absurd looking, sticking out beyond the frames. Once you've dialed up the perfect focus, you can snap off the knobs, but then the glasses are no longer adjustable. You've locked in that "prescription" forever.

You can leave the knobs on, so that you can dial up different focal powers at different times. That's fine if you don't care what you look like (at home in bed, say), but you wouldn't want to wear them in public like that.

The third Adlens style, Emergensee ($40), is slightly more conventional-looking. Its adjustment knobs are much smaller and less conspicuous. They stay on, so you can always adjust the focus.

These glasses don't have liquid inside; instead, each lens has two panes that slide past each other when you turn the knobs, so they still look a little odd. But Adlens promotes them as an ideal spare pair for the glove compartment or kitchen drawer.

The best, Adlens says, is yet to come. This fall, it will offer liquid-lens technology, for the first time, in normally shaped, designerlike frames. Stay tuned.

O2Amp color-assisting glasses. O2Amp makes tinted-lens glasses for the medical profession. According to the company, these glasses give doctors a "clearer view of veins and vasculature, bruising, cyanosis, pallor, rashes, erythema, and other variations in blood O2 level, and concentration," especially in bright light.

But the purplish pair, the Oxy-Iso ($302), has an unintended side effect, the Web site says: they "may cure red-green colorblindness."

I just about hit the ceiling when I read that. Like about 8 percent of the male population, I'm colorblind; I have severe red-green colorblindness. That is, I see far less red and green than you do. I can't tell blue from purple, or green from brown. And I fail miserably on those colorblindness tests where you try to see hidden numbers among colored dots (Ishihara plates).

Unfortunately, the Oxy-Iso glasses did nothing for me. I still failed the Ishihara tests.

"We do have about one or two in 20 that don't get any benefit, and it's due to their colorblindness being too severe," the inventor wrote to me. "What our technology does is amplify weak red-green sensitivity. But if there's basically no red-green sensitivity at all, then there's nothing to amplify."

If the Amazon reviews are any indication, these glasses do permit many colorblind buyers to distinguish colors for the first time.

But the company notes that the Oxy-Iso filter amplifies the red-green discriminations "at the expense of their intact yellow-blue discrimination. In a sense, the Oxy-Iso spreads the color confusion more evenly around the color wheel." That's why you shouldn't wear them driving, because "yellow lights will become nearly invisible."

But if you're red-green colorblind, and it's worth $300 to be able to distinguish colors for the first time, you should try them. You get your money back if they don't help you.

Glasses.com 3-D Virtual Try-On app. Nothing is more design-dependent, fit-dependent or person-dependent than glasses. And few things make a bigger difference to your looks. That's why most people buy glasses at a store, trying on pair after pair in a mirror, accompanied by trusted friends or family.

Most people would never trust buying glasses from a Web site. Pity the entrepreneur who tries to sell glasses online.

The online store Glasses.com has created some exceptionally slick, polished, useful software to address this problem. Its free iPad app creates a 3-D, photo-perfect model of your head -- and then lets you "try on" thousands of different colors and styles of glasses and sunglasses. (Android and iPhone apps are coming.)

You hold your iPad flat against a bathroom mirror. The app's voice prompts you to turn your virtual head slowly from fully left to fully right; in a second step, you hold the iPad facing the mirror against your chin while it measures your face. You see it create a wire-mesh 3-D model, "Terminator"-style, and then boom: there's a perfect, photographic, 3-D model of your head.

Now the fun begins. You can "try on" any of 2,000 glasses designs in the company's catalog. They're well organized by style, color, price, brand and so on.

Using your fingers, you can turn your head 90 degrees left or right. You can view four copies of your head on one screen, turning them in sync, to make it easier to compare glasses. You can even adjust how you're wearing the glasses -- lift the earpieces higher on your temples, for example, or slide them down your nose as if you're peering at someone cute on the beach.

In a store, you can't wear your existing glasses to see what you look like with a new pair on; now you can. In a mirror, you can't see the side view of your head, either. And your entire online social circle can now give you feedback on your frames finalists, since it's easy to send images by e-mail or to Facebook or Twitter.

Now, Glasses.com is not, ahem, a purveyor of cheap eyeware. You won't find $7 reading glasses or $10 sunglasses here. The sunglasses, for example, range from $50 to more than $450 a pair.

Fortunately, Glasses.com offers an equally impressive try-at-home program. You can order four pairs at a time, wear them for a week and return the ones that didn't make the cut; the company pays all the postage both ways.

Without question, the Glasses.com app represents the state of the art in virtual style shopping. It's superb technology that really works and could save a lot of people a lot of embarrassment. Come to think of it, the world would be a better place if there were similar apps for other things that people should try on virtually before committing to -- like hairstyles, tattoos and plastic surgery.

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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