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Bye-bye to bifocals? These high-tech specs can automatically change focus

If you’re reading this through bifocals, or you happen to use different specs to see things up close and in the distance, then new tech from researchers at the University of Utah is likely to be of interest.

According to a piece on the university’s website, the team has developed a pair of smart glasses with lenses that automatically focus according to what you’re looking at, whether it’s a book in front of your face or the road ahead when you’re driving.

Led by electrical and computer engineering professor Carlos Mastrangelo and doctoral student Nazmul Hasan, the researchers created a liquid-based lens powered by electronics.

While the human eye includes a lens that adjusts the focal depth depending on what you’re looking at, its ability to change focus diminishes with age. That’s why people often end up needing spectacles for reading or to see objects farther away.

The lens used by these special specs is made of glycerin, a thick colorless liquid that the researchers enclosed in flexible rubber-like membranes.

“The rear membrane in each lens is connected to a series of three mechanical actuators that push the membrane back and forth like a transparent piston,” the website post explains, “changing the curvature of the liquid lens and therefore the focal length between the lens and the eye.”

Mastrangelo explained that the focal length of the high-tech specs depends on the shape of the lens, “so to change the optical power we actually have to change the membrane shape.”

The engine room is inside the frames, which at this stage look rather on the bulky side and not something you’d want to wear walking down the street. In the center of the specs is an infrared distance meter that gauges how far away the object of interest is from the wearer. The onboard computer then tells the actuators how to curve the lenses to bring the object into focus. According to Hasan, the lenses can change focus from one object to another in 14 milliseconds, while the onboard battery can run for more than 24 hours on a single charge.

Before you can start using the glasses, they need to be calibrated by entering your eyeglasses prescription into the accompanying smartphone app, which communicates with the specs via Bluetooth.

It’s an exciting development because as the team points out, the design means that “theoretically, eyeglass wearers will never have to buy another pair again since these glasses would constantly adjust to their eyesight.” However, you might want to swap out the frames from time to time as styles change over time.

So, will the specs ever make it out into the wild? Quite possibly. The team says it’s created a startup to help design a “lighter, more attractive” set of frames, and hopes to get them on the market within three years.

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Trevor Mogg
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