Eyes and Ears

(Part of The Future: A Retrospective)


TV Eyeglasses

TV Eyeglasses
Odds 75%
Year 1993
Cost N/A

"Farsighted researchers [ha! -LR] are taking the high-tech track to better vision with televisions so tiny they fit into eyeglasses." A great deal of unwitting overlap with the Wearable Computer here. The bridge of the glasses contains fiber optics which "convey the image in front of the wearer to TV cameras". It felt like there was a lens missing from that system so I checked the NYT, which assured me that "[t]he camera lenses will be on the outer edges of the glass frames," and that the fiber optics are just a conduit. There's one TV for each lens.

As we go into more details we see more and more about why this product probably won't meet its 1993 deadline: "Because eyes move but glasses don't, the researchers are developing infrared eye trackers to stabilize the images...still have to work out a few kinks, not the least of which is making the glasses 'lightweight and cosmetically acceptable." The 1988 plan is to keep a battery pack and solid-state TV cameras in a fanny pack, which takes the product out of even late-night infomercial range.

TV eyeglasses are sold today starting at about $250/2007, but their typical video source is a computer or DVD player, not a head-mounted video camera. They're for people who want to watch TV in the dark, not for people who have trouble seeing.


Eye Braces

Eye Braces
Odds 75%
Year 1994
Cost $2000/1989 ($3300/2007)

Technical term "intracorneal rings" or "intacs", these are plastic devices surgically embedded in the cornea to warp it into a normal shape. Pioneered by KeraVision, the lenses got FDA approval in 1999. KeraVision went bankrupt in March 2001, but other companies are making similar rings today.

The illustrations in Future Stuff and patent #5188125 make it look like they erect scale models of the LAX Theme Building inside your eye, a painful prospect at best. Today's intracorneal rings look a lot less creepy, but they're still inside your eye. Laser eye surgery, not mentioned in Future Stuff though it's a natural for their sensationalist writing style, is a lot more popular.


Fish-Eye Lens

Fish-Eye Lens
Odds 100%
Year 1991
Cost N/A

Fisheye lenses are nothing new, but this one is inspired by the eye of the copilia (PDF), and it "will gather light like no other lens ever devised by man." Jerome Wolken has patented a double lens that's "ten times more sensitive to light than a normal camera lens" and which can help you see so long as "the optic nerve and even just part of the retina are functional."

Wolken died in 1999, but according to his NYT obituary, his Light Concentrating Lens System was successful at helping legally blind people, mostly people with cataracts, get enough light into their eyes.


Time-Release Eye Drops

Time-Release Eye Drops
Odds 100%
Year 1990
Cost N/A

Future Stuff talks a good stand-up-comedian game about eye drops. What's the deal with them? "Half the time you miss, and when you finally do get a drop in, it stings so much your eyes well up with tears. When they overflow, up to 80 percent of the solution runs down your face or, worse, the back of your throat." Back me up on this one.

The soluble ophthalmic drug insert is apparently the solution. Unlike many Future Stuff entries which dumb down the terminology, this entry not only gives us the SODI, it describes the SODI as "a biodegradable polymer matrix", which is actually less helpful than "soluble opthalmic drug insert". Fortunately they then go on to say it's "roughly the size and shape of a Tic Tac mint", and it goes underneath your eyelid. The insert slowly dissolves into your bloodstream, giving a steadier flow of medicine. This PDF has a creepy picture of one being inserted into someone's eye cavity.

In a nice reversal of the space-pen story, the SODI was devised at great expense by the Soviets as a way to treat cosmonauts, for whom eyedrops are even less useful than usual.


Telescopic Eyeglasses

Telescopic Eyeglasses
Odds 100%
Year 1990
Cost $2200-$3000/1989 ($3600-$4900)

"An accident at birth left Brandon Edwards with optic nerve damage so sever it rendered him, while not blind, incapable of fully operating in asighted world." As excellent a Daredevil-esque superhero origin story as this would be, the only compensation seems to have been super-determination, as it took "years of hard work" for Edwards to invent the bi-level telemicroscopic apparatus.

BITA, the first Future Stuff product to sound like a bill before Congress to strip all our rights, are shaded glasses with "tiny telescopes built into the lenses." It's like a set of bifocals except that one of the lenses is incredibly powerful, and is set in the middle of the glasses. Here's the patent, with a CHiPS-looking diagram.

Brandon Edwards's company, Edwards Optical, only shows up online in business lists, which at this late date probably means they're out of business. I've seen people wearing the Binocular Glasses from chapter 1, but I've never heard of telescopic glasses, and there's not a whole lot of interest in them on the web--certainly nobody saying they sell them. In the late 90s there was a flurry of news articles about computer-focused telescope glasses, which seem like a cross between this idea and the TV Eyeglasses mentioned earlier.


Holograph Bifocal Contact Lenses

Holograph Bifocal Contact Lenses
Odds 95%
Year 1991
Cost $410/1989 ($670/2007)

And you thought every possible future-buzzword had already been incorporated into a way to improve peoples's sight. No, you forgot HOLOGRAMS. "There are currently other bifocal contact lenses on the market, but they work by dividing their surface into two separate lenses." The holographic lenses form "two images that have equal intensity but different focal points." I laughed at the name, but this makes a lot of sense once you understand what they're doing. The brand name is Diffrax, and here's a study that says it works.

The British manufacturer has the ultra-British name of Pilkington Contact Lenses, Ltd. Nobody's talking about holographic bifocal lenses anymore, but I'm pretty sure that's just because people couldn't handle the awesomeness. They had to tone it down and start talking about "concentric ring designs" instead--it's the same design described in Future Stuff.


Digital Hearing Aid

Digital Hearing Aid
Odds 100%
Year 1990
Cost $1500/1989 ($2500/2007)

"People who say they can't hear usually [can't hear specific frequencies]." Yes, I started a quote and then decided to paraphrase to clean up the magazine writing. Question me not! Anyway, 1989-era hearing aids are just microphones that amplify the whole sound spectrum, and 3M has invented a hearing aid with an equalizer. Marketing manager Bill Schnier sounds like the announcer in one of those hearing aid informercials: "If you're at a concert... you could eliminate some nearby distractions and concentrate on just hearing the music." Or eavesdrop on passers-by as they comment on how good-looking you are! It's fun!

You can program up to eight "listening situations"--this preset programmability is one of the great unsung hallmarks of 80s technology. Future Stuff goes on about this for a whwhile in a very 80s way: listening situations are "programmed by a computer that is controlled by your audiologist...according to your individual life-style." I forgot my mantra!

Digital hearing aids are now everywhere, and this page runs down the advantages over the analog variety.


The Noise Canceler

The Noise Canceler
Odds 100%
Year 1993
Cost N/A

"'We now have the technology to effectively eliminate low-frequency repetitive noise and vibration,' says [sales representative] Frank Siciliano." The idea that sound waves cancel out other sound waves "has been known to scientists for years," but finally Moore's Law has made it possible to generate the cancelling waves in real time.

Future Stuff presents this technology as suitable for reducing the noise generated by engines, vacuum cleaners, etc: here's a patent for an electronic car muffler, which is a good idea but not one I've ever encountered. I don't know what happened there.

Today, noise-cancelling headphones are common. Siciliano's company, Noise Cancellation Technologies, is still in business, and has its noise-reduction software installed in "such diverse applications" as phones, intercoms, radios, more intercoms, and more radios, with the goal of making human speech more audible.

The status quo is pretty close to the opposite of what Future Stuff predicted: "The one application which will have to wait is nullifying irregular noises--radio, television, children, etc.--in the home." Yeah, tune out your children, that's a great idea. At the time Moore's Law meant you could only cancel out "the consistent level of noise from machinery." Now that I think of it, it's pretty odd that there are no noise cancelling mufflers around. Is there a patent problem? Is the technology too fragile? Are there noise cancelling mufflers but nobody talks about them?


The Noise Meter

The Noise Meter
Odds 100%
Year 1998
Cost $500/1989 ($820/2007)

"Instruments exist that measure general noise levels in an area, but a person's ear receives 60 percent more screeching, drilling, hammering and rock 'n' rolling than whatever level is measured in an open environment." Rather than multiply by 1.6, "a company in England" invented this device. But then I shouldn't talk, since I've been using a web service client to calculate inflation between 1989 and 2007 when I could just multiply by 1.6.

The company in England is never named, but the product is: the Noise Dosemeter. It's got a microphone that fits right in your ear, which is kind of a funny idea, and a "main unit" that tells you when your noise exposure exceeds a preset limit.

"Noise dosemeter" and "noise dosimeter" are now generic terms, but the unnamed company might be NoiseMeters Limited, modern-day makers of the doseBadge, which is like a Smoke-Check Badge for noise.

"[P]arents, take heart, this item will provide long-needed evidence in the case against loud rock 'n' roll." Today's parents don't worry about rock 'n' roll as much, which may be why noise meters are still mostly "used on the job at building and road sites and in factories," to comply with OSHA.


This document (source) is part of Crummy, the webspace of Leonard Richardson (contact information). It was last modified on Monday, March 31 2008, 00:26:30 Nowhere Standard Time and last built on Wednesday, April 16 2014, 16:00:08 Nowhere Standard Time.

Crummy is © 1996-2014 Leonard Richardson. Unless otherwise noted, all text licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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