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Hocus Focus: Innovation Makes Your Smartphone Screen “Wear” Glasses for You

December 3, 2014
by Glen Martin
person looking at picture of balloon

Expect the buzz over “vision-correcting” screens to ratchet up toward chainsaw decibels:  Scientific American just designated research by UC Berkeley computer science professor Brian Barsky’s team as one of 2014’s “World Changing” ideas.

Such screens, by “distorting” in response to a viewer’s visual deficits, could eliminate the need for spectacles or contact lenses. No matter if you required lenses thick as Coke bottle bottoms to see your fingers in front of your face: With such screens, you could scan your smart phone without your glasses.

Earlier this year, a prototype developed by Berkeley researchers Barsky and Fu-Chung Huang and their colleagues at MIT began to seize the interest of tech reporters, that breed of scribes who always have their antennas attuned for the latest electronic gewgaw. They were charmed by the prospect of looking at their iPhones with their naked, if hyperopic, eyeballs—that and the possible commercial applications, of course. Given the ubiquity of computer visual interfaces, anyone who successfully marketed such new-fangled corrective screens could become as rich as Croesus—maybe even Mark Zuckerberg.

As Scientific American noted, “glasses and contact lenses are not always ideal. If you are farsighted, for example, you do not need glasses to see traffic while driving, but you do need them to read your speedometer or GPS. The best solution…would be vision-correcting displays—screens that wear the glasses for you.”

Barsky is gratified by the recognition, but a bit distressed by the direction of dialogue.

Brian Barsky
Brian Barsky

He didn’t undertake the work, he says, to get rich or provide the digerati with new toys. He did it to help people whose vision deficits are intractable.

“My background is in computer science, but I’m also deeply interested in optics and photography,” says the Cal prof, who also serves as an affiliate professor of optometry. He adds that the innovation was really inspired by people who have intractable visual problems.

For many optometric complications, corrective lenses are not an option. Sometimes surgery can help, but Barsky felt there should be solutions simpler than resorting to the knife. He had created a technique he dubbed vision realistic rendering, which simulates how a person “sees” by measuring the precise distortions (“aberrations” is the preferred ophthalmic term) in a given patient’s eye, and then simulating those graphically on a computer screen. That led to the question: If researchers knew a given patient’s optical data, could they then develop a display that would correct for it right on the screen?

At first, such a goal seemed impossible, says Barsky, “but we began chipping away at it.”

He prefaces any explanation of his research with an acknowledgement that it is complex.

“The primary aspect of the research is not hardware, but software—more precisely mathematics developed and algorithms designed that precisely attenuate the intensity of the light being emitted at each pixel of the display,” he wrote in a follow-up email. “Then a thin sheet of plastic perforated with tiny holes is aligned where each hole corresponds to a collection of pixels; the light from the pixels can thus be sent out in different directions. This allows the image of the screen to appear distorted in a way that compensates for the specific optical aberrations of a given viewer.”

To such a viewer, “it looks fine,” says Barsky. “To other people, the image will be bizarre. It is not a correction. It is an inverse distortion.”

The process, he continues, is analogous to wearing dark sunglasses while looking at a computer display. “With the glasses on, it’s too dark to see the screen clearly, but if you crank up the contrast, it looks great. To everyone not wearing sunglasses, however, the screen will look far too bright.”

Ultimately, it could be possible to quickly adjust the screens to address different optical aberrations, says Barsky, “but right now we’re going for proof of concept, not speed.”

Back to motivations: Barsky acknowledges the queries for mass marketing keep coming in, but he emphasizes he is a researcher, not an entrepreneur.

“The problems associated with these high-level aberrations are extremely complicated, and the people who suffer from them are underserved by the optometric community,” Barsky says. He adds that there are fewer and fewer jobs that do not involve interaction with display screens, “and if you can’t really see them, well, it can affect your career, the quality of your life. And when you’re told, ‘Sorry, it’s not possible to get eyeglasses so you can see your computer,’ it’s devastating. What are you supposed to do?”

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