Va. OD helps develop first self-focusing eyewear

January 26, 2012

Gary Meier, O.D., director of primary care services for Illinois Eye Surgeons, a 14-office St. Louis-area group ophthalmology and optometry practice, inspects a pair of the PixelOptics eyeglasses the practice began carrying in its dispensaries last month.

“We are bringing vision correction into the 21st century,” said Ron Blum, O.D., president and CEO of Roanoke, Va.-based PixelOptics, Inc. Dr. Blum believes a new breed of composite lens technology used in his new PixelOptics line of emPower! eyewear – the world’s first electronic focusing eyeglasses – will “revolutionize” presbyopic vision correction over the coming months and similarly advance other fields of vision care over the coming years.

“As the developer of the world’s first and only electronic focusing eyewear, emPower!, PixelOptics is committed to redefining the way people see by improving the current standard of vision correction,” Dr. Blum said.

Developed in cooperation with Panasonic Healthcare, emPower! lenses can change focus from distance to near, or vice versa, in less than a second.

emPower! lens are based on a traditional low-powered progressive lens design but with an electronically activated reading zone built in. The reading zone utilizes liquid crystal technology that changes focal length when an electric current is applied.

When the liquid crystal is “off,” the lenses provide intermediate and distance vision, a company spokesperson said.  When the liquid crystal layer is “on,” a section of the lenses magnifies to provide good near vision in addition to the intermediate and near vision.

Wearers can switch back and forth between distance and near by touching the sides of the frames. Touching a specific spot on the frames, the eyewear can be set to switch modes automatically depending on whether the wearer is looking up or down.

The lenses largely eliminate problems with “swim” or other visual distortions that progressive or bifocal wearers often experience when looking down or to the side, company officials said.

“With the ability to substantially reduce or eliminate the perceived distortion and other limitations associated with traditional progressive lenses, emPower! places control of vision back in the hands of the patient, providing a level of vision clarity and comfort never experienced before in the correction of presbyopia,” Dr. Blum said.

Power is provided by batteries in the emPower! frames that are designed to go about 30 hours between recharging.  An eyeglass holder and in inductive charger is provided with each pair.

Dr. Blum established PixelOptics in 2005 after noticing that auto and aircraft manufacturers were increasingly using new composite materials to improve their products. “Composite materials” are developed by combining traditional manufacturing techniques with newly developed technologies, Dr. Blum explained. He reasoned that by merging traditional lens manufacturing with emerging technologies in electronics and other fields, he could develop new categories of corrective eyewear.

Panasonic and five venture capital firms also believe in the concept and are providing financing. A team of leading scientists, industry professionals and business leaders has been assembled from around the globe. To date, PixelOptics has registered over 300 lens-related patents and patent applications worldwide – with more on the way, according to Dr. Blum.

The company offers one static lens, atLast!, which it describes as the first “enhanced multifocal” providing bifocal and trifocal wearers improved intermediate vision.

However, electronic focusing glasses have been the company’s primary objective from the start.

“emPower! is to progressives what progressives are to flat-tops,” said Dennis Geuder, PixelOptics regional sales director. “It’s the difference between a hand-crank telephone and a touch-screen cell phone.”

In fact, emPower! utilizes some of the same technology used in cell phones, he adds. For example, the device that is used to change the focus of emPower! lenses based on head tilt – known as an accelerometer – is used in smart phones to change the screen orientation from landscape to portrait.

Although PixelOptics lenses incorporate sophisticated new technology, they will be marketed through traditional vision care industry channels of distribution.

Practitioners need purchase no special equipment to process the lenses or incorporate them into practice, according to the company. Panasonic is manufacturing the electronic lens blanks that are processed by a series of authorized ophthalmic labs around the nation.

The electronic frames, produced by Aspex Eyewear, are available in a fashion collection of 13 styles, including multiple color options. In total, the emPower! line offers 36 different electronic frames from which to choose.

“emPower! eyeglasses have the weight, feel and look of regular, high-fashion eyewear,” Dr. Blum said.

emPower! lenses are prescribed in much the same manner as traditional designs, Geuder said. However, there are a couple tricks to fitting and dispensing the lenses, he acknowledged. For that reason, PixelOptics is holding a series of training sessions for eye care practitioners and staff around the nation as part of a region-by-region product introduction.

The emPower! eyewear line was formally announced in January. It was initially introduced to market in Georgia and surrounding areas of the Southeast in spring 2011.

PixelOptics expects to have some 1,200 eye and vision practices as registered dealers by the time the product rollout is competed in the U.S. late this year. emPower! will be introduced in Europe during 2012, Geuder said.

List priced at $1,200, emPower! eyewear is more expensive than traditional bifocals; however, practitioners who spoke with AOA News during PixelOptics’ St. Louis training program expected the eyewear to find acceptance among a range of patients.

Extensive coverage in USA Today, on Live with Regis and Cathy Lee and through other media outlets is expected to spur interest, according to the company.

The eyeglasses have already been reviewed on numerous science and technology Web sites.

Plans for additional PixelOptics lens lines with changeable tints and other features are already under way.

Down the line, the company sees a range of breakthrough products from lighter, more comfortable, more attractive low vision devices to specialized microscope devices for surgeons and other health care professionals.

“Just think about this technology and where if might take you,” Geuder said.
 “The introduction of emPower! marks a turning point in the evolution of vision technology,” Dr. Blum said.

For additional information, visit the PixelOptics Web site (www.pixeloptics.com).

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