2011-01-20 / Local & State

Firm Makes Sunglasses That ‘Outsmart The Sun’

By Erich Schwartzel

MOUNT LEBANON, Pa. (AP) – Many tech startups dream of being acquired by Google.

Dynamic Eye has its sights on Oakley.

The Mount Lebanonbased company has spent the past seven years building sunglasses that come with one frame, two lenses – and an algorithm that can outsmart the sun and identify where glare is strongest.

“We help fight glare like no sunglasses have before,’’ said Chris Mullin, the company’s founder and chief executive.

Dynamic Eye frames have a built-in processing system that concentrates shade to portions of the lens hit hardest by the sun, allowing differing degrees of shade throughout the lens.

You’ve heard of smart phones. These are smart shades.

The products at Dynamic Eye could be used for purposes like shielding glaucomic eyes from light rays and protecting Air Force pilots flying at high altitudes – or helping commuters who always find the sun placed just to the left of the car visor.

The company has worked for seven years on the technology, but is just now kicking off a round of fundraising to launch a pilot round of consumer models.

The style of the glasses has certainly evolved with every prototype – the first models were not built for fashion. Early versions look like oversized Wayfarers that come with wood, screws, an exposed circuit board and an attached computer processor the size of a jewelry box – all adding up to an aesthetic somewhere between science fair creation and Lady Gaga prop.

Since then, the technology has shrunk to fit a small box that fits in between the lenses of Oakley wraparounds.

Inside the box, a pinhole camera takes a picture of the frame’s line of vision. From there, a small computer analyzes the image and scans it for glare that exceeds a threshold algorithm. It then directs extra pixels of shade to that portion of the lens.

The whole process takes about 100 milliseconds so as the direction of light changes, the darkening pixels instantly dance across the lenses like caffeinated Tetris shapes.

Since the prototypes were built with glass lenses, most of the new funding Mullin is seeking will go toward developing the technology in plastic lenses.

He sees three potential markets: the medical market, where conditions like glaucoma can make eyes sensitive to light; the professional market, where workers like truck drivers and military personnel spend significant amounts of time outside; and the consumer market, where morning commuters and sports players try to block out the sun’s glare.

Industry analysts say Mr. Mullin is entering a market that’s weathered the national recession because of a willingness to experiment.

U.S. sunglass sales from January to November 2010 totaled $1.7 billion, and technological advancements “play a huge role,’’ said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst of accessories at the NPD Group in Port Washington, N.Y.

The sunglasses market can mimic the cell phone world, he said, with new and improved models coming out every year, whether through better light protection, a lighter frame or a built-in music player. When it comes to sunglasses, “The more innovative, the better,’’ said Cohen.

The story of how Mullin – who prefers his lenses to be wire-framed and prescription – thought up the product should provide inspiration for gridlocked drivers everywhere.

He was a commuter in California, heading east in the morning and west in the evening – a route that always caught him driving into the sun. He knew there’d be a market for drivers and athletes who need partial shading, but it wasn’t in sunny California where the company took off.

Dynamic Eye started in 2003 when Mullin lived in Buffalo, N.Y., and hopped around between several small tech firms. After he was laid off from one, he started Dynamic Eye, armed with a Ph.D. in physics from the University of California, Berkeley and funding from friends and family.

The company moved to the Pittsburgh area in 2008 after his wife was recruited to teach at the University of Pittsburgh medical school.

Mullin’s small two-room office in Mount Lebanon is supplemented by lab space at Kent State University’s Liquid Crystal Institute in Kent, Ohio, where Dynamic Eye employs two full-time employees and one part-time worker.

The technology quickly drew interest from the military, and for the past six years annual six-figure Small Business Innovation Research contracts from the Air Force and Army have subsidized Mullin’s research and development.

The funding has kept the company afloat but also forced time and energy toward military models with darker lenses. Still, sometimes military research can be applied to consumer pursuits. When the military requested a lens that would stay clear when the darkened pixels weren’t moving, Mullin extrapolated that he could market the model for latenight drivers disturbed by oncoming headlights.

His salary just recently matched with what he made before starting the company. But Mullin is focused on bigger numbers: He estimates he’ll next need about $5 million in funding and one year to build a pilot line of 24,000 consumer pairs. Mullin expects to start pricing at around $400 to $500 per pair and then eventually hit a target price of around $200.

He’s talking with venture capital firms, has posted a call-for-cash on the crowdsource fundraising site Kickstarter and will soon approach major manufacturers about teaming up for a joint venture.

Oakley and its parent company, the Luxottica Group, are on the top of his wish list since the eyewear company has been unafraid to outfit its signature wraparound frames with hightech accouterments.

Also on the to-do list: extending the glasses’ battery life. Right now, the frames can withstand 80 hours of continual glare shielding before running out of power.

One economical solution has crossed Mullin’s mind.

A solar-powered pair.

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