Your phone camera can autofocus. Why can't your specs?
Startup Pixieray is working on a breakthrough in vision correction.
How many pairs of eyeglasses do you own? If you need vision correction, you may have accumulated a few. There's your everyday pair, a handful of cheap readers, the old pair you keep around just in case … and the next ones you'll need when your prescription changes.
The startup Pixieray wants to bring that number down to one. The Finland-based company, with seed funding from Amazon's Alexa Fund, is developing eyeglasses that adjust to your vision on the fly, potentially eliminating the need to swap out lenses or peer through half of a bifocal.
"In some sense, the glasses that you're wearing are more than 100 years old at the moment," says Niko Eiden, Pixieray founder and CEO. "There's absolutely no modern technology in them so far." Pixieray's inaugural product, IXI, combines software and optics for autofocus lenses.
The company has been conducting research and development on the concept since its 2021 debut and is now in the product prototyping phase. On a recent call with Amazon Science, Eiden showed a build of an IXI pair that looked unremarkable, as glasses go — that's by design.
"The experience that we are aiming for would be the same as any pair of eyewear," he says.
From mixed reality to real-world view
Eiden and his three cofounders — Rebecca Xu, chief operation officer; Klaus Melakari, chief technology officer; and Ville Miettinen, chief algorithm officer — have been working for the past several years on virtual and augmented reality tech for major companies in the field. Even as they had worked on advanced headsets and sensing, they saw an opportunity in the specs so many people don for everyday tasks.
“The team has a compelling vision — pardon the pun — for advancing the state of the art in corrective eyewear in a way that moves computing to the background and makes it truly ambient," Amazon Alexa Fund director Paul Bernard said when announcing the funding.
As part of the R&D phase, Pixieray interviewed potential users to understand the customer need and which features would make most sense, Eiden says. Eiden himself is a pilot, and he wanted a way to ensure consistently good vision while switching views from outside the plane to instruments on the dashboard and ceiling. The desirability of that quick-switch focus without multifocals — something that will be familiar to any driver who has struggled with toggling between looking at the road and the dashboard nav system — was confirmed in the interviews. A mechanic mentioned flipping bifocals upside down to work under a car.
Having shown that the combination of tunable lenses and eye tracking could work and would solve a problem, the team began iterating on prototypes. "Now we are diving into the hardware problems: How do we produce this efficiently so that we don't waste materials and it lasts long enough? What type of power requirements? How much real estate do we have to put the components in?" Eiden explains. "It's an interesting journey, because the question and the problem change continuously."
The robustness requirements of real-life usage such as different lighting conditions and temperature impacts were impressive, Eiden says of the research process. Measuring visual quality also proved to be very difficult, he adds: “The experienced visual quality differed vastly from person to person and even more when compared to our lab measurements made with instruments or cameras.”
Pixieray's technology combines a liquid crystal-based lens with eye tracking. Eye tracking is used to understand the distances to whatever the user is looking at, while liquid crystal technology changes the optical power of the glasses on the fly. A typical way to track eye movement would be to set up cameras that capture images of the eyes and send them to a computer vision algorithm that figures out where the pupil is positioned. That's not feasible for a pair of glasses.
"Just the sheer amount of data that we would have to process makes that impossible,” Eiden says. “So we had to find a completely new way to do the eye tracking, that works without cameras, fits into the frames and uses next to no power." Eiden notes their proprietary process relies on calibrating each pair of IXI glasses to the eyes of the user, which can be done with IXI’s mobile app.
The prototype pair he showed still relied on external hardware to wirelessly process the signals, which makes it much faster to iterate new versions. Behind him, engineers were using a control board resembling an audio mixer to find the correct "tune" for each specific lens — a process that will be fully automated later on at the factory.
"Of course, we need to miniaturize this," he says, showing a driver component that changes the optical power of the lens with software. Everything about the IXI, from the lens driver components to the batteries, needs to be tiny to fit the eyeglass frame.
A product whose time has come?
Eiden says the wristwatch industry, combined with the boom in wearable fitness trackers, has paved the way for the IXI. "There's a lot of optimization needed, from a power perspective," he says. "Five years ago, this type of product wouldn't have been possible, because those components just didn't exist yet."
Still, the size and form factor of the glasses require specialized components. "We've had to build our own manufacturing equipment. We are using very sophisticated lasering processes for the manufacturing part," he says.
Once the team has ironed out a successful prototype and manufacturing process, Pixieray will start on factory builds of the IXI. Eiden says the company is targeting a launch by the end of next year.
The promise of the technology goes beyond the convenience of being able to, say, ditch your multifocals, Eiden notes. Eventually, you might be able to have a prescription that takes into account the fact that your eyes get tired later in the day.
The whole model of how we think about eyeglasses and prescriptions is due for a change, Eiden says: "If it's not us, it's going to be somebody else. It just makes so much sense."