Optical scientists at the University of Arizona are working under an agreement with The Egg Factory, LLC, and its subsidiary company, eVision, to develop a proprietary technology that within a few years could provide next-generation eyeglasses -- glasses with lenses that actively focus so people can see clearly up close or far away.
"It's a very exciting project," said Nasser Peyghambarian. "We are embarking on a revolutionary path to create eyeglasses that focus automatically, could provide better than 20-20 vision, and can be readily modified and adjusted at the doctor's office."
"The components don't exist today to make such glasses -- otherwise, somebody would be making them," said Bernard Kippelen. "There's still a lot of research to be done. We are working on several ideas to get the high-performance materials we need for these futuristic glasses."
Peyghambarian, Kippelen and David Mathine of the UA Optical Sciences Center are working to develop the electroactive materials and microcomputer programmable, adaptive lenses that would use miniscule battery-supplied voltages to instantly change refractive power at many tiny points, or pixels, across the lens.
Peyghambarian, Kippelen and Mathine work as an interdisciplinary team to identify and develop the best materials for the lenses, study the optical and electrical properties of the materials, design and fabricate the lenses, design and integrate the software and electronics.
The Arizona Board of Regents earlier this year approved the Egg Factory -- UA research agreement on behalf of university. The 4-year agreement was negotiated through the Office of Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies, the UA Optical Sciences Center and The Egg Factory, a Roanoke, Va., firm that develops innovative technologies for Fortune 500 companies. Others involved include Shamir Optical and Holo Or, Ltd., from Israel, Indiana University, the University of California San Diego, Motorola Inc., and the Johnson & Johnson Development Corp.
The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune have run feature stories on the lenses.
Presbyopia, a condition that causes a loss in the flexibility of the lens inside the eye resulting in near point blur, affects 93 percent of the world's population over age 45, according to information on The Egg Factory website, http://www.eggfactory.com.
Today, this condition is corrected with multi-focal lenses. However, bifocal or trifocal eyeglass wearers, much to their irritation, must tip their heads up or down for clear distance or near vision, Progressive lens glasses wearers must tilt their heads at between 35- and 45-degree angles for clear close-up vision, and their view to either side of the reading zone is distorted.
A traditional eyeglass lens is figured to a certain prescribed thickness to bend light so that it focuses on the eye's retina.
Variable focus glasses would shoot an infrared beam to the object a person was looking at, and a microprocessor would calculate the power needed to bring the object into focus, much like an autofocus camera system. Electroactive maerial will be embedded in the eyeglass lens so voltages can be used to control how light is bent at all points across the lens within milliseconds.
Real-time electronics in future smart glasses is something like adaptive optics in telescopes. Astronomers use computer software to change the shape of telescope mirrors to compensate for air turbulence to bring stars into focus.
In next generation eyeglasses, the lens won't change shape, but computer programmed electroactive materials will bend incoming light to compensate for eye aberrations.
"Where there is a huge gap between adaptive optics for telescopes and these glasses is that people are going to have to wear these," Kippelen said. "And for people to wear them, they have to look good. "
"The glasses may be very cool, but if they don't look cool, no one will wear them," Peyghambarian agreed. Cosmetic aspects are a critical design consideration.
The trickiest problem at this stage is finding the ideal electroactive material for the glasses, Peyghambarian and Kippelen said.
An Indiana University optical scientist who specializes in ophthalmology will help evaluate the lenses. Israeli researchers are working on a slightly different, complementary approach to the UA team's in the project.
The technology has potential to revolutionize the $50 billion worldwide vision care industry, according to Dr. Ron Blum, an optometrist who is president and chief executive officer of both The Egg Factory and eVision. Dwight Duston, chief technology officer at The Egg Factory, contacted the UA optical scientists to work on the project.
Peyghambarian estimates that the first of the new glasses may be available to consumers in about three to four years.
UA Vice President for Research Richard C. Powell, former head of the UA Optical Sciences Center, said, "High-tech vision enhancement is an exciting opportunity. This university-industry partnership is an excellent example of how research at the UA is has an important impact on our quality of life."