The study of optics is one of the oldest and most documented areas of science. We all remember experimenting with prisms and learning about Galileo inventing the telescope in the 1600s – although actually, a guy called Hans Lippershey beat him to it by about a year. Yet there is a branch of optics that goes back further and has had an even more important impact on human history.
In fact, the chances are, you are using exactly that technology to read this clearly. Almost two-thirds of Americans need vision correction of one sort or another, and given the amount of time we spend staring at screens, it is perhaps unsurprising that the number goes up every year.
Creation of the first corrective eyeglasses is credited to an Italian by the name of Salvino D’Armate, who connected two “reading stones” (magnifying glasses) and joined them with a hinge that balanced on the bridge of the nose. It is worth bearing in mind that this invention appeared at some time in the late 13th century – around 350 years before Galileo’s telescope! Sunglasses have been around even longer, and have always been a hit with celebrities – there are reports of Emperor Nero watching the gladiatorial battles through a polished emerald to protect his eyes from the sun’s glare more than 2,000 years ago.
Of course, eyewear has evolved significantly over this time, but until the late 20th century, D’Armate’s basic principle of two lenses balanced on your nose had remained unchanged. The technological age, however, has seen innovations that have brought the science of eyewear further in the space of a decade than in some 700 years.
In the run-up to Christmas, Virtual Reality was the big craze, and kids across the country were asking Santa for the latest headset – not to mention plenty of their parents! Yet there is a parallel technology that is potentially even more revolutionary – augmented reality.
This is when the physical and virtual worlds combine, using wearable technology – and where could be more natural than in front of your eyes? Tech startup firms are already releasing smart glasses onto the market that send a stream of information to the wearer via micro displays, as well as providing 120-degree vision.
Remembering their purpose
Smart glasses are great in principle, but it is important to learn from the lessons of the smartphones that came before them. As they became ever more advanced, it became common to see a review of the latest handset that would say the only thing it was not very effective at was making and receiving phone calls.
We can laugh, but there is more at stake than a minor inconvenience if your eyeglasses are not effective in fulfilling their primary purpose. As well as the potential for poorer quality of life and frequent headaches, there is a genuine risk to life and limb, particularly if those who need corrective eyewear get behind the wheel of a car wearing their new smart glasses.
That is why this technological development goes hand in hand with ophthalmological expertise. Rohit Varma is one of the best-known names in ophthalmology, and as well as developing cutting-edge treatments in disorders such as glaucoma, he has also worked closely with the technological innovators to ensure that even the smartest glasses are first and foremost aimed at addressing their main purpose.
With his help, the latest smart specs are far more than a novel toy, or the next fad for those who have tired of voice technology. Innovative eye-tracking combines with zonal estimation and free-form optics to constantly assess the wearer’s vision and adjust the focus accordingly, to keep it optimal at all times.
Medical device, smart accessory or a fashion symbol?
The idea behind smart technology is essentially one of simplification. Smart gadgets around your home allow you to control the TV, central heating and numerous other tools and gadgets from your mobile phone. Augmented reality via smart eyeglasses takes it a step further.
Glasses have always been more than just a medical device – why else would we spend hundreds on a set of designer frames when we could buy something completely serviceable for a tenth of the price. Yet now, looking fashionable and having perfect vision can be combined with still more – and with the technology in its infancy, the possibilities are limited only by our imagination. The future looks like a very exciting place – and one that we will all be able to see with crystal clarity!