We live in an era of extraordinary technological progress. Our lives today would have been unimaginable to the generations that came before us. Yet in one field – essential to our everyday lives – little has changed. It is said that in the late thirteenth-century, medieval monks first fashioned glasses. Today, over seven hundred years later, the technology we use to correct our sight is essentially unchanged.
Fifteen years ago, we were a team of Oxford scientists. Inspired by the science of sight, we developed dynamic lenses that change focus just like the human eye. Backed by a philanthropist who shared our vision, we took our technology first to the developing world, where 2.5 billion people live with uncorrected vision and don’t have access to prescription glasses.
But we always knew we were only scratching the surface of our technology’s potential. Our business, Adlens, set out to explore it. We started with an ancient human frailty: presbyopia, the deterioration of near sight we all experience as we age. For the 70 per cent of the world’s population who wear glasses, this condition sees us accepting the limitations of readers, varifocals, bifocals or switching between glasses. Rather than accept this as an unavoidable fact, we are developing adaptive focus lens systems that seek to return the clear sight of our youth, with sharp focus and a full field of view at any distance.
The history of scientific discovery, however, is punctuated with moments where an advance in one field leads to a breakthrough in another, and so it proved for us. While we initially set out to address an ancient problem, we have now discovered that our technology has the potential to solve the most modern of challenges: unlocking the promise of virtual and mixed reality.
Virtual and mixed reality are already helping us see and do what was once unimaginable, whether seeing historical Rome reconstructed or virtually working with collaborators half the world away. And it is already helping us to learn and create, whether a surgeon training in a virtual operating theatre or an engineer designing our future. Its true potential could be greater still. By moving to a world without screens, where virtual and real worlds exist seamlessly together, we could transform how we live, work and communicate.
For all the hype, however, virtual and mixed reality have not yet really taken off. The problem is simple: the experience is simply not yet good enough. Too long wearing a VR headset can cause eyestrain and even nausea. In an augmented mixed reality world, the interaction of real and virtual objects is unrealistic, with the majority of virtual action happening outside of arm’s reach. The result is that we are not yet able to immerse ourselves and fully engage in these worlds. Rather than stepping through the looking glass, we remain observers on the outside looking in: spectators of, not actors in, these augmented worlds.
So far the solutions being applied to these problems have been largely digital: the addition of more pixels or the application of more powerful software. But these problems cannot be solved by advancing digital technologies alone, because the problems are more human than that, and at their root lies the science of how we see – a field we have spent 15 years exploring. We believe our adaptive optical systems, paired with ongoing advances in digital technology, have the power to change the way we see forever.
At Adlens, we are partnered with some of the world’s leading augmented reality, technology and optical companies helping to change the way we see. Understanding how we see is allowing us to push the limits of what we see – allowing our vision to work naturally in virtual worlds, in mixed realities and in the real world too.
While sometimes human progress will rely on new software, smaller hardware or more processing power, we believe that to make a real step change you have to combine these advances with the science of the things that make us human. If we can do just that, after 700 years, we believe there will be a revolution in sight.