Versions is the essential guide to virtual reality and beyond. It investigates the rapidly deteriorating boundary between the real world and the one behind the screen. Versions launched in 2016 at the eponymous conference dedicated to creativity and VR with the New Museum’s incubator NEW INC.

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The evolution of glasses: from reading lenses to virtual reality

The evolution of glasses: from reading lenses to virtual reality

This article is part of Vision Week, our exploration of eyeballs and videogames celebrating our collaboration with Warby Parker. Grab a pair of limited edition Kill Screen glasses here: warbyparker.com/kill-screen


I had just sat down in my seat, on an airplane bound for someplace I can’t remember, when I put on my first pair of prescription eyeglasses. I was excited. I hadn’t yet tried them on in public. They were narrow lenses, like long, rounded rectangles. The frames only had a top rim, which I thought made their presence subtler.

I wasn’t blind without glasses, but they made tasks like reading less strenuous. The text in the in-flight magazine was crisp and slightly magnified, as I expected it to be. But the revelation came when I looked up from the crossword puzzles and caught a glimpse of the back of a passenger’s head, sitting in the row ahead of me. I could distinguish individual hairs on this man’s balding scalp—I was taken aback. Perhaps that doesn’t sound all that profound, but for me, those discrete silvery gray hairs hinted at a whole world of intricate detail that I’d been missing. My glasses were the key that opened the door.

a symbiotic merging of both technology and fashion

Growing up, my vision had always been decent, but never perfect. I was told I might have astigmatism: a relatively common condition where the cornea has a slightly imperfect curve. It was explained to me that the quality of my vision would fluctuate, but that no corrective action was necessary. That meant no glasses. I was a bit disappointed at the time—I actually wanted glasses. I thought they made their wearers look smart. Well, in my early 20s, my eyesight had deteriorated to the point where the problem could no longer be ignored, and I got my wish. I was far more excited about what I’d look like wearing glasses than the practical benefits of being able to see properly.

Perhaps I was coming from a slightly under-informed perspective, but it’s true that eyeglasses are a symbiotic merging of both technology and fashion. At their core, glasses are prosthetics—wearable vision aids for people with less-than-perfect eyesight. But glasses are also decorative headwear. They have frames that hold the lenses, but when worn, glasses are also frames for your eyes. The same way a great frame on a painting can situate the composition in a specific context; so too can eyeglasses as they both physically complement one’s facial structure and offer a means of self-expression. The history of glasses as a technological invention is inextricably tied to its status as a fashion accessory, if for no other reason than their inherent wearability.

A 19th century man wearing green-tinted sunglasses, via Two Nerdy History Girls
A painting of a 19th century man wearing green-tinted sunglasses at the Winterthur Museum, via Two Nerdy History Girls

When glasses were first invented in late 13th-century Italy, they were simply a wearable form of two reading lenses, riveted together via a nose bridge. They were function over form, even in terms of basic comfort. According to orthoptist G.T. Cashell, there is strong evidence that as far back as 5000 BCE, even prior to our understanding of when Ancient Egyptians could manufacture glass, that people used semi-precious transparent stones as reading aids. However, as soon as you take the reading lenses off the desk and put them on a face, they become things not only designed for looking through, but to be looked upon as well.

And as with so much of the high fashion and high tech worlds, for a long time, glasses were the domain of the wealthy. As described in Valerie Steele’s Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion (2004), the invention of the printing press in the 15th century sparked an explosion in the demand for eyeglasses as more and more people began to learn to read. As a result of this, by the time the 17th century rolled around, the bespectacled rich sought out ways to maintain the elite status of their eyewear, and they did so by ditching the then-workmanlike spectacles in favor of handheld lenses, which carried a certain gestural flair. The legacy of such glasses live on in similarly showy designs like opera glasses, which retain a certain usefulness, but exist largely in service of being a high society sigil. The sportswear equivalent is probably Oakley’s aptly titled Over The Top shades that made waves around the turn of the millennium, but failed to catch on beyond a few eccentric celebrity sightings.

Benjamin Franklin wearing his glasses
Benjamin Franklin wearing his glasses

Even for non-aristocratic glasses wearers, we’ve come a long way from breakthrough moments like Benjamin Franklin’s invention of the bifocal lens, allowing wearers the ability to see near and far just by looking through either the upper or lower half of their frames. To create the first bifocals, Franklin basically cut two different curvatures of lenses in half and stuck each together with the other. These days there are trifocals, lenses that block the sun’s ultraviolet rays, anti-glare lenses, anti-fog lenses, light-sensitive lenses that darken when the wearer goes outside, and others. Lest we forget that lenses are still essentially medical technology, and new innovations must keep pace with progress in other industries. It’s telling that when I was fitted for a new prescription earlier this year, I had the option of getting lenses with a protective coating for reducing the eyestrain caused by staring at computer screens all day. The basic functionality remains relatively the same, while accessibility has become more adaptive.

VR headsets are like strapping the book to the frames themselves

Nowhere is the technological bent of eyeglasses more explicit than when it comes to virtual and augmented reality headsets. After all, if glasses are framed windows for seeing the world, who says that world can’t be digital? Eyeglasses were originally developed as a means of reading, so, in a way, VR headsets are like strapping the book to the frames themselves. What separates even the simple Google Cardboard VR unit from just being a face-molded box are the biconvex lenses housed inside. These lenses distort specially formatted video footage displayed on a smartphone to make it appear natural in our stereoscopic vision and sense of perspective. Google Glass is basically a set of eyeglass frames without the lenses and a substitute display for the corner of the wearer’s vision. Incorporating the augmented reality functions into a proper set of spectacles seems inevitable.

With the invention and technological progress of contact lenses, perhaps someday we’ll look back at eyeglasses as obsolete and ostentatious, the way we might now view the monocle or those handheld eyeglasses from the 17th century. Though, it’s hard to imagine the extinction of eyeglasses entirely, as they’re so entrenched in our visual history. Even if glasses get outpaced technologically, their foothold in the fashion world carries serious cultural cache. I may have grown used to seeing the world with increased detail thanks to my glasses, but I always revisit that same fledgling enthusiasm when it comes time to select a new pair of frames—it’s when I get to establish a new look for people to see me as much as I see them.


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