Sunday, November 03, 2013

My new "Superfocus" glasses

Update 3/6/2014: 

If you found this page while searching for reviews/information about Superfocus glasses, please do not take any steps toward purchasing them before you read my new post about what appears to be fatal problems at company headquarters, here:


I'm 52, an age where presbyopia--the loss of ability to focus up close--is universal. I got my last pair of new glasses in late 2006. Even then I could have used bifocals, but I decided to soldier on with single-focus lenses, carefully selecting ones that I could easily peek under rather than through for close focusing. (My distance prescription compounds the difficulty of focusing up close.)

This year, though, the situation reached a point where I could no longer continue muddling by. I was losing the ability to focus at computer distance, which is what I need for many hours every day.

I also have a lot of astigmatism--3.0 diopters worth, if that tells you anything--that is actually more of a problem than my myopia (nearsightedness). The result is that even with my glasses off, so that I'm not fighting the negative magnification of my distance correction, I can't see clearly because I'm left with no correction for my astigmatism. This is why dime-store reading glasses don't help me much.

Over the years I had heard and read a lot of different opinions about the relative merits of bifocals, trifocals, and progressive lenses. They would all address my problem, but with a variety of compromises and introduction of other problems that I really didn't want to face: the need to tilt my head up or down to get the right focus, lines between focus zones, tired neck muscles from holding still to keep the computer screen in focus, etc.

And the thing I most wanted to avoid was devolving to multiple pairs of glasses for different tasks. That would drive me stark raving mad, because I know myself well enough to know that I would forever be stuck away from home with the wrong pair, or wasting time trying to remember where I left the pair I want. (I love my girlfriend more than life itself, but I have watched her struggle with this the entire time I've known her. I cannot count the number of times she has been exasperated because she has found she doesn't have the right pair of glasses with her.)

The main reason I put off going for any of these solutions for so long was because I didn't like any of the trade-offs I would have to make. But about a year ago, I was listening to Penn Jillette's weekly podcast, "Penn's Sunday School," when he mentioned that he wears, likes, and endorses something called "Superfocus" glasses (previously known as "Trufocus"). He said they allowed him to see sharply at any distance just by sliding a small lever to change the focal point. I quickly read about them and became intrigued. They sounded like the best solution yet:

I didn't bite right away. I was then just buying a new car and knew that I would soon be racking up a bunch of expenses moving from Las Vegas to Asheville, so I didn't want to spend a lot of money on glasses if I could procrastinate another year or so.

But as I said, over the last few months, I've become increasingly frustrated by not being able to see anything clearly unless it's at least 8 feet away from me. So I decided it was time. I again did due diligence, reading all that I could about both Superfocus and the more conventional alternatives. I went to my local Superfocus vendor, a nice little shop in downtown Asheville called L'Optique. After all of that, I decided to give them a try, knowing that the manufacturer had a 30-day money-back guarantee were I to decide they didn't fit my needs.

Specifically, I got the company's newest line called the "Leonardo" collection. You can read all the technical details at their web site if you want, but the basic idea is that my distance and astigmatism correction lenses are built into the frames, then there is an adjustable focus mechanism with a second set of lenses that snaps inside the frames. The adjustable lenses nest right behind the prescription lenses. By turning a small dial on the bridge, I can move the focus anywhere from about 12 inches out to infinity.

Well, I've had them for five weeks now, and my conclusion is that I was right--this is the best solution for me. I can't describe what a revelation it was that first couple of days rediscovering the simple joy of being able to see text and objects clearly, after years of gradually accepting blurriness as just the way things had to be. It takes just two seconds to focus the dial mechanism. I can set it so that whatever I'm looking at is in sharp focus, not just in a small part of the lens, but in the entire lens.

These would not be a good solution for somebody who needs to constantly shift focus from one distance to another. But nearly all of my waking hours are spent in large blocks of time at a single focus--long distance for driving, just a little magnification for the TV about 10 feet away, a medium amount for computer work, or dialed all the way in for reading. When I'm doing various tasks around the house--cleaning, cooking, playing with the cat, or whatever--a sort of medium focus gives me a depth of field such that essentially everything is in acceptable focus without constant adjustment. For situations like grocery shopping the same is pretty much true, supplemented with occasional close-up dialing to read a label.

Only once so far have I encountered a situation where the need to manually focus for different distances was a hassle. I was sitting with my girlfriend, Nina, at an outside table of a local ice cream shop, enjoying the mountain view. But I needed to dial in close to see where the ice cream cone was dripping, a little farther away to look at Nina when she was talking to me, and then dial all the way out to appreciate the beautiful mountains in the distance. Oh, for the good ol' days when my eyes could manage that task instantly, without assistance. (We pause here to weep for lost youth.) But to have had only one such situation in a month of use shows that that is truly the exception rather than the rule.

There are definitely disadvantages. First and foremost is the aesthetics. They are far and away the ugliest, strangest-looking glasses I've ever had. (Well, looking back on old photos of myself in the 1970s, I guess I have had worse--but they didn't seem so at the time.) They give off a definite sense of being something like scientific lab goggles rather than conventional eyewear. This is largely because the multi-focus lenses only work if they are perfectly round, which severely limits the ways in which the frames can be styled. But I spend only a few minutes a day looking in a mirror, and the rest of the time I can completely forget how they look. Besides, I am firmly in the function-over-form camp, and always have been. I'm a guy who wears a fanny pack, for heaven's sake, because it's a convenient way to carry all the stuff I like to have with me, and appearances be damned. So what do I care if strangers think my glasses are kind of funny-looking?

Here's a selfie I just took sitting at my desk:

Because the lenses are set on computer distance (i.e., with a decent amount of magnification), they makes my eyes look a little bigger than is really the case. To see how they look on me from an outside observer's point of view, you can take a look at a photo that Nina took of me at her house Halloween night here.

They are rather heavy, what with two sets of nested lenses and a whole focusing mechanism. They came with a "saddle" nosepiece that runs across the bridge of my nose. It adds to the funky appearance, because it holds the lenses farther from my face than standard glasses. But I tried going to standard nose pads, and quickly regretted it, because I had to keep pushing the glasses back up into place. I put the saddle thing back in, and that problem went away again.

I like starting the day with pristine-clean lenses, and clean them rather meticulously every morning. This process now takes more than twice as long as it used to. It would take twice as long just because there are twice as many lens surfaces as there are with standard glasses. But it's even longer than that, because the second, adjustable-focus lenses are a rather soft plastic that for some reason is just harder to get completely free of smudges and tiny bits of dust and lint.

I have a vague sense that the hinged connection of the earpieces to the rest of the frame is not as sturdy as I'd like. When putting them on or taking them off, I find myself handling them with gingerly care because of this. I hope I'm wrong about that.

Today I found a very recent review of the Superfocus Leonardos by a guy whose experiences and opinions very closely match my own: In fact, he covers so much of what I was going to say that I thought I would just link to his review, add a few words, and be done with it. But, as usual, once I started typing, my congenital logorrhea kicked in, and you're reading the result.

I was glad to see that after some use he downgraded his initial A+ rating of the optics, because I couldn't agree with that grade. If you look closely at the focusing lenses, it's obvious that they are nowhere near as clear as standard eyeglass lenses. Sadly, material science hasn't yet evolved to the point where a flexible surface can transmit light as perfectly as a rigid material. This isn't functionally a problem for me or for most users, but if you do a direct comparison with and without the focusing mechanism in place, there is definitely a slight degradation in the quality and clarity of light coming through. (Another, earlier user review that helped push me to this purchase was this one by a professional photographer who is understandably very fussy about image quality.)

My overall conclusion is that these glasses probably are the best choice for me. Of course, I'm saying that without having actually tried bifocals, or trifocals, or progressives, or having a different pair for each kind of task I might be doing. I can only compare my actual experience with Superfocus to my imagined experience with those alternatives. So I might be wrong. But it's impractical and too expensive to try every option, so I'll just have to live with the uncertainty.

Until medical science comes up with a way of restoring youthful plasticity to my eyeballs, I'm going with Superfocus. It's a great, great idea. It's not yet perfectly implemented, I think, but still the best among an array of compromised choices.

Note added in proof: I suppose this post might sound like a paid ad. It's not. But after my car, this was the biggest consumer-type decision I've made in several years. I put a ton of time and thought into it, both before and after purchase, so I thought I'd record my experience in the hope of helping others faced with the same conundrum.

Bonus material: Gratuitous cat photos 

You all understand that I'm madly, hopelessly, ridiculously, embarrassingly in love with my cat, right? So I need to remind you at every opportunity how adorable Lucy is. Here's a picture that Nina took of her several months ago:

And here's one I took of her just a couple of days ago as she was stretching out in the new heated-for-winter cat bed I bought for her:

Further bonus material: Asheville fall colors 

Asheville is at the peak of fall colors right now, and it turns out that the street I live on is one of the prime urban spots that people come to gawk at. It's not as nice as the vast swaths of moutainside color in the state and national parks nearby, but we have a nice near-canopy of trees arching over the street. This is just one of them--one in my own front yard, in fact:

In the morning, this tree reflects a ton of sunlight into my office window, throwing its yellow-orange tint all over the room. It's incredibly lovely to sit and work bathed in that glow.

But it won't last much longer.