If you’re reading this clearly, sans eyeglasses or contacts, you probably haven’t heard of presbyopia. The condition refers to the diminished ability to focus on near objects, a common vision problem as people enter middle age. But thanks to PixelOptics, it might not have to be.
The company’s emPower! eyeglasses automatically change focus and are the world’s first electronic corrective eyeglasses. In fact, the technology represents the most significant technical advance in eyeglasses in the past 50 years, according to PixelOptics’ CEO, Brett Craig: “It’s a disruptive technology in a relatively stoic domain.”
While the world multifocal market is vast—with approximately 50 million pairs of progressive-addition lenses and 50 million pairs of lined multifocals sold annually—for years, the technology has been stable. “The ophthalmologic sector has been a business of incremental change,” Craig explains.
Now, recent advances in consumer microelectronics have allowed the creation of something entirely new. emPower! eyeglasses look like regular high-fashion eyewear, but their frames contain a hidden battery, a microchip, and an accelerometer that activate electronic lenses. “To some degree, we’re harmonizing digital technology in a manner similar to what you see in appliances,” says Craig of the eyeglasses, which are protected by nearly 300 patents and patent applications worldwide. “In doing so, we’ve taken a relatively static environment and made it dynamic.”
Wearing the eyeglasses, you wouldn’t notice anything different at first. Under normal operations, the lenses are available for far distance and fingertip vision. When needed, however, their lenses electronically change their molecular structure to activate a close-up focus.
“When a wearer tilts his or her head downward to read or view an object up close, an accelerometer detects the motion, and a microchip sends an electronic signal to a transparent LCD layer in the lens,” Craig explains. “That LCD layer then alters how its liquid crystals refract light, changing the prescription of the lens faster than the blink of an eye—with no moving part and without making a sound. Wearers can use this automatic focus mode, or choose between a manual on and manual off mode.”
The idea was conceived by The Egg Factory, a Roanoke, Virginia-based firm that incubates ideas in the optical industry. The firm researched and developed the product, eventually spinning it off into a new firm, and PixelOptics was born. In 2007, the company began working with Japan’s Panasonic Healthcare to refine and manufacture the lightweight, electronic semi-finished blank lens from which all prescriptions can be fabricated. The eyeglasses hit US markets in April 2011. To date, more than $100 million has been spent in inventing, developing, refining, and scaling emPower.
So far, the reception has been good. A series of independent tests conducted in 2010 showed that wearers considered emPower! eyeglasses superior to a leading lens design in seven out of eight vision-performance categories, and equal in performance in the remaining category. PixelOptics’ electronic eyeglasses received two prestigious awards this year: the top 2012 Edison Award for notable innovation in the quality-of-life category, and the global R&D 100 Award.
Craig says the company’s focus in 2012 has been improving what is already a terrific product, adjusting the company’s business model, upgrading the company’s facility, reorganizing the company’s supply chain, and preparing for an ambitious global relaunch in 2013.