Sometimes, technology advances in a way so intuitive that it makes you question how we ever put up with limitations on previous iterations of commonly used products.
Around 20% of the global population is affected by an eye condition called ‘presbyopia,’ the inability to focus on nearby objects. Reading glasses can offer a stop-gap solution, but for day-to-day life, people turn to either surgery or ‘progressive lenses’—glasses that allow the user to see at a distance when looking through the top of the frame and at nearby objects by looking through the bottom.
This method of correcting vision is, however, fraught. Wearers are required to hold their head in a certain position to achieve focus, and peripheral vision is essentially non-existent. This can have serious implications while driving: People are forced to turn their heads almost a full 90 degrees and look through the bottom of the lens to see into a side mirror before changing lanes, thereby taking their eyes off the road.
Stanford electrical engineer Gordon Wetzstein, who works with a team of PhD students, has long sought a more elegant solution. And through his usual field of study, virtual and augmented reality, he came across new fluid lenses and eye-tracking capabilities—combining them to create what he dubs a “potentially transformative product.”
“More than a billion people have presbyopia and we’ve created a pair of autofocal lenses that might one day correct their vision far more effectively than traditional glasses,” he said.
Their prototype product, dubbed ‘autofocals,’ is a pair of glasses with smart lenses and software than can triangulate where a person is focusing their attention, then determine the precise distance to said object to stay in “constant and perfect focus.”
The team tested the prototype glasses on 56 people with the condition, finding the users said the auto-focus lenses performed better and were more comfortable than other lenses.
Wetzstein was supported in the study by PhD student Nitish Padmanaban. He said that lots of people spend time getting used to corrective lenses, but it would be better to “restore the experience” enjoyed during the majority of their lives, when they could automatically refocus their eyes.
Padmanaban said that as the technology improves, “You could have a single pair of glasses for your entire life.”
The academics now aim to make the technology smaller, lightweight and stylish—a process Wetzstein thinks may take a few years to develop.
“This technology could affect billions of people’s lives in a meaningful way that most techno-gadgets never will,” Wetzstein added.