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

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

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.

Magnifying and Correcting

In the 11th century, Ibn al-Haytham, an Arab scholar studying shadows, eclipses and rainbows, observed that a convex lens could make a magnified image. In his Book of Optics (1021), he notes that light enters and is processed in the eye, countering the Greek notion that light emanated from the eye itself. Al-Haytham made his own magnifying lens and used it to read scientific treatise when his eyesight started to fail in old age. In 1266, an English monk based in Paris, Roger Bacon, published Opus Majus. The manuscript outlines technical drawings and scientific theories for corrective lenses, although it appears that they were never made.

The First Spectacles

The invention of corrective eyeglasses is attributed to monastic scribes living in the Italian region of Venato during the 13th century. Good eyesight was a prerequisite for God's work and disorders of the eye needed to be corrected. During a 1306 sermon, a Dominican friar named Giordano da Rivalto is reported to have said “It is not yet 20 years since there was found the art of making eyeglasses which make for good vision, one of the best arts and most necessary that the world has.” Thus, a date of 1285 or 1286 is given for the invention of these spectacles. They consisted of two convex lenses joined together by a rivet and mounted in frames, which were then held up to the face with a handle. 

Seeing Faraway Things (and Tiny Ones Too)

The first patent for a telescope, described as an instrument for “seeing faraway things as though nearby,” was lodged in The Hague by Hans Lippershey, in October 1608. Lippershey’s telescope consisted of two lenses in a tube, and it magnified objects by three or four times. In 1609, the astronomer Galileo heard about Lippershey’s telescope and bettered what his Dutch contemporary had invented by building one that could see even farther. Both Lippershey, and father-son, lens-grinding team, Hans and Zacharias Janssen (who were residents of the same Dutch town as Lippershey) have been hailed as inventors of the microscope.

Vanity and Sunlight

In the 1780s, the invention of handheld lorgnettes meant that self-conscious ladies did not have to wear eyeglasses on their faces, which they worried would make them appear elderly or infirm. Rather, glasses could be held up to the eyes on a long handle when they were required. During the mid-1800s, the pince-nez, spectacles that held themselves in place by pinching the bridge of the nose, became an everyday optical accessory. Then, in 1913, English chemist Sir William Crookes produced lenses that could absorb both ultraviolet and infrared light. In turn, it became possible to protect our eyes from dazzling sunlight, and by the 1930s, sunglasses were popular and fashionable. 

Sensory Entertainment

(Hugo Gernsback demonstrates his TV glasses in 1963 for Life magazine. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

In 1960, VR innovator Morton Heilig patented his Telesphere Mask, a head mounted display that combined 3D slides, stereo sound and an “odor generator.” He was clearly on a roll, as in 1962, he patented a multisensory Sensorama Simulator, an immersive cinema designed for one person. A year later, Hugo Gernsback, a science fiction writer and inventor, was famously pictured in Life magazine wearing his prototype TV glasses. Worn on the face of the viewer, the TV glasses received signals via antennae. Channels of light were beamed directly onto screen in the glasses. However, the photograph of Gernsback wearing his TV glasses has had more enduring appeal than the invention itself.   

3D Viewing

In 1965, in a bid to force the human retina to receive a 3D image, rather than the perception of one formed by two overlapping images, computer scientist Ivan Sutherland invented The Sword of Damocles. It was a cumbersome head-mounted unit that projected 3D images straight onto the wearer’s retina, and it also had a semi-translucent visual interface to display graphics. The invention was so unwieldy that it had to be attached to the ceiling by a mechanical arm. 

Private Eye

In 1989, display technology company Reflection Technology launched Private Eye, a device mounted on a pair of glasses and suspended over a user’s eye. Rows of LEDs and a vibrating mirror combined to create an interface upon which lines of text appeared to be superimposed on the real world. A battery stowed in a shoulder bag powered Private Eye. The invention was incorporated into several projects, including KARMA (Knowledge-based Augmented Reality for Maintenance Assistance), which allowed technical schematics and instructions to appear overlaid on equipment as it was repaired.

Steve Mann's Mediated Reality

Inventor and “mediated reality” guru Steve Mann has been developing wearable and embedded technology since he was at high school in the 1970s. Many of Mann’s WearComp or wearable computer units have undergone multiple incarnations as technology has progressed alongside his imagination. His EyeTap, for example, has evolved from an unwieldly, helmet-mounted device to a tiny one that fits sleekly onto the face. It uses a beam splitter, allowing it to function as both a camera, recording a user’s environment, and a display with imagery superimposed upon it. 

Cyborgs and Eyeborgs

Catalan cyborg and artist Neil Harbisson was diagnosed with achromatopsia when he was child, meaning he sees in black and white. In collaboration with cybernetics expert Adam Montandon, he developed his first eyeborg in 2003 when he was a student at England's Dartington College of Arts. The device is now permanently embedded into Harbisson’s skull and allows him to “hear” colors.  A screen suspended in front of his eyes detects light waves and then converts them into sound frequencies. However, the resultant frequencies are not heard, rather they are conducted through his bone and Harbisson experiences them as vibrations, which he then translates into vividly colored artworks and sound portraits.