Many people over 40 can't focus on close-up objects, a condition called annoying— or, to be technical, presbyopia. Bifocals and progressive lenses provide a solution, since they contain prescriptions for both long-range and reading distances, but some patients have trouble adjusting to them and experience side effects like headaches or nausea.
That unsatisfying solution inspired Ronald Blum, founder and chief executive of PixelOptics in Roanoke, Va., to develop the world's first commercially available electronic eyeglasses. The frames look ordinary, but the arms hide a rechargeable battery, a microchip, and an accelerometer. When a wearer tilts his head down to view an object up close, the accelerometer detects the motion. The microchip sends an electronic signal to the lenses, part of which contains a substance similar to that used in liquid-crystal displays. The current from the battery alters how the liquid crystals refract light, changing the prescription of the lens. Because the wearer doesn't constantly deal with two prescriptions at once, PixelOptics lenses do away with the side effects, says Blum.
The eyeglasses will initially cost about $1,000, says Blum, 63, a 20 percent to 25 percent premium over high-end frames with progressive lenses. Still, he says, 50 million pairs of progressive lenses are sold each year, and if PixelOptics can grab just one or two percent of the market, "that's $200 million worth of business." The frames will go on sale in the U.S. early next year and globally by the end of 2011. Thomas Steinemann, an eye doctor in Cleveland and spokesman for the American Academy of Ophthalmology, says he may recommend the glasses to the more than 15 percent of his patients who can't adapt to progressive lenses or bifocals.
Electronic eyewear isn't Blum's first invention. He practiced optometry for more than 20 years before developing a cheap way to make lenses out of resin. He began by using tanning beds at a local salon to melt the resin. That tinkering led him to launch Innotech, a lens manufacturer that was acquired by Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) for $135 million in 1997. At J&J, he helped develop Definity, a popular progressive lens, before leaving in 1999 to work on the project that became electronic eyeglasses. He has no qualms about displacing his prior invention. "People put up with them because there's nothing better," he says.
Fine-tuned his first invention under the lamps of a tanning salon
Liquid crystals allow lenses to rapidly switch prescription
A fraction of the market could be "$200 million worth of business"