Elles sont équipées de petites piles et de puces dissimulées dans les branches ; ces piles activent la puissance de la correction des verres quand vous en avez besoin, et la désactive quand vous n'en n'avez plus besoin. Ces nouvelles lunettes emPower font appel à la technique des cristaux liquides analogues à ceux qui se trouvent dans les écrans plats. Ces cristauxpeuvent transformer la manière dont les verres réfractent la lumière, à la manière des verres habituels qui jouent sur l'épaisseur. Pour mettre le verre en position "lecture", il suffit de toucher la branche de la lunette. Ceci a pour effet d'envoyer un micro-courant électrique qui change l'orientation des des molécules dans les cristaux. Un nouveau tappotement sur la branche rétablit la focale habituelle du verre. Tout comme les smartphones et autres ordinateurs, il faudra recharger régulièrement - tous les 2 à 3 jours - les piles qui se trouvent dans les branches.
Ces verres "numériques" seront commercialisés dès le printemps, en test puis en extension US. Ils coûteront environ 1000 à 1200$ tout compris (monture, verres, et le chargeur). Les premiers tests sont concluants, surtout quand on descend un escalier où il faut simultanément regarder loin et près.
Dr. Larry Wan, a managing partner at Family EyeCare Center in Campbell, Calif., tested the glasses with 10 of his patients, all in their 50s. He said they were a hit, for example, with people who had been bothered by blur as they walked down flights of stairs while wearing their glasses. “With these,” he said, “you can turn the reading power off, so they are safer and you don’t have that distortion.”
Of course, you’ll have to remember to charge them, a nuisance required by no ordinary pair of glasses. The charge lasts two to three days, said Larry Rodriguez, an executive at PixelOptics.
But you won’t have to worry if you drop them in the water. “Wipe them off and they should be fine,” he says, although they may require recharging.
The glasses have a parts list associated more with iPods than with optics. The transparent layer of liquid crystals and its electrode array are buried beneath the front surface of the lenses. The eyeglass frames have tiny microchips, rechargeable batteries and wires that supply electricity to the lenses. There are also built-in accelerometers, devices that sense the downward bend of a head, as though to look at a page, that can switch on the reading power automatically.
Although the eyeglasses are loaded with electronics, they don’t look that way, says Jack Loeb of Fisher Island, Fla., who is trying out a pair. “They look just like ordinary, high-end glasses,” he said.
Thirty-six different frames made by Aspex Eyewear will be offered initially, Mr. Rodriguez said. The electronic lenses are being manufactured by the Panasonic Healthcare Company in Japan. The lenses can be popped out and replaced if a prescription changes, Dr. Blum said.
The market for emPower glasses isn’t likely to include the young. “About 80 percent of the people wearing reading glasses are past 40,” said Steve Kodey, director of industry research at the Vision Council, a trade group for eyewear manufacturers and suppliers in Alexandria, Va. But the market is “much bigger than most people realize,” Mr. Kodey says.
Last year, some 20.6 million pairs of progressive lenses, and about 16.2 million pairs of bifocals, were sold in the United States.
If consumers buy emPowers instead of high-end progressive lenses, they will pay a premium. Even in high-end regular glasses, progressive lenses typically go for $300 to $400, Mr. Kodey said. And the average cost of frames is $125 (though there are many higher-cost options for the fashion-conscious.)
LIQUID crystals offer a promising way to bend light in glasses, says Larry Thibos, a professor of optometry at Indiana University, Bloomington, whose research for the last 20 years has included work on electronic spectacles.
“The concept is solid,” he said. You energize the crystals and you have a lens that will then vanish when the power goes off.
Dr. Thibos evaluated prototypes of the glasses for Dr. Blum a decade ago. “The glasses worked fine even then, but they looked geeky,” he said of early versions. The process of bringing the glasses to market — in a stylish form — took 12 years and roughly 275 patents, says Dr. Blum. Financing has been provided by Delphi Ventures, the Carlyle Group, Longitude Capital, Stark Investments, Panasonic Ventures and Life Science Angels, among others.
The work on the new lenses started with the liquid crystals in computers, not in spectacles. In 1999, Dr. Blum and his group were working on ways to help aging eyes read a computer screen. Originally, they had hoped to put the extra reading power directly into the liquid crystal display on the computers, which at that time had thick screens. But as the screens grew thinner, it was no longer practical to do so.
“So we had to take what we’d put into the computer screen and put it into your lenses,” Dr. Blum said.
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