10 Bizarre, Vision-Enhancing Technologies From the Last 1,000 Years

Before Oculus Rift, there were lorgnettes, TV glasses and eyborgs

Adriaen van de Venne engraved this early depiction of a Dutch telescope. Image courtesy of Wikipedia. ()
smithsonian.com

The current boom in wearable and immersive technology will forever alter how we see and interact with the world. From Oculus headsets that jettison us through time and space, and FOVE eye-tracking technology that uses subtle movements to control virtual reality environments, to conceptual designs for contact lenses with cameras that trigger when a wearer blinks, our augmented vision is stretching our conception of reality. Yet the desire to manipulate, correct or extend what we see is not an exclusively 21st century urge—it has fueled ingenious, and at times wildly eccentric, innovations for centuries.

Natural Born Optics

The invention of devices that adapt our vision arose out of curiosity, playfulness and philosophical meditations. Seneca the Younger, the Roman philosopher, noted in the first century that “Letters, however small and indistinct, are seen enlarged and more clearly through a globe or glass filled with water.” In Sweden, Vikings polished rock crystal to make decorative lenses. They found that when sunlight was concentrated through the lens a fire could be made. Smoky quartz was employed to a similar effect in China.

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