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How Oakley Is Changing The Way Athletes See

How Oakley Is Changing The Way Athletes See: What life looks like through standard sunglasses (left) and Oakley Prizm (right)

What life looks like through standard sunglasses (left) and Oakley Prizm (right)

When it comes to sunglasses, most people are concerned more with how people will see them than with how they will actually see. As far as vision is concerned, people tend to be happy as long as they can walk outside and not have to squint.

But what if a pair of sunglasses could give you bionic vision? What if they allowed you to see things that others couldn’t? That’s the idea behind Oakley’s new Prizm lens technology, which is doing nothing less than changing the way we see.

More than a decade in the making, Oakley’s Prizm lenses are comprised of unique dyes calibrated for different sports. Think of the way cars are custom tuned for different tracks and environments, and then imagine doing the same for your eyes. You wouldn’t want go off-road rock crawling in a Lamborghini, so why would you want to look at asphalt on your road bike the same way you do the greens on a golf course? Because each sport has a set of colors that are specific to it, Oakley developed the lenses to accentuate the colors you need to see while tamping down the ones you don’t. (Science is involved.)

It’s the kind of thing you need to experience first-hand to truly appreciate. It’s amazing to mountain bike down some single track in the Trail lenses and then take off the glasses when you get to the bottom and realize all the roots, rocks, and contours you never would have seen with a standard sunglass lens, let alone the naked eye.

The Prizm technology will be on full display at the upcoming Olympics in Rio. If Oakley had been a country at the London Games, it would have topped the medal count—and a similarly large number of athletes will wear the company’s products in Brazil. The difference is that this time, they’ll all be wearing glasses with Prizm lenses.

To find out how exactly the lenses work and what it took to develop them for each sport, we sat down with Oakley Research and Development manager Wayne Chumbley.


Where did the original idea for this technology come from?
It’s been roughly a 15-year process. As tools became more available, as technology evolved, Prizm evolved. We launched a lens 10 years ago that had some similar technology called G30 that was specific for golf. The key for Prizm was the availability of the dyes [used to make the lenses].

How do the dyes work in the sunglass?
They basically absorb light. Our cone of vision sends a signal to our brain and that’s what helps us identify color. If I was going to test you for color deficiency, I would mix up a whole bunch of different colors and have you try to put them back together in order. When you look at five or six colors next to each other, they look really similar. But when you remove a couple of colors and arrange them next to each other, it becomes clear that they’re different. That’s essentially what we’re doing with the glasses, eliminating the colors that create confusion that are next to the colors that we really need to see. Separating color builds contrast. Doing that creates depth perception. That depth perception improves performance.

How do you figure out which colors you need for which sports?
We have a spectral camera [that sees many more bands of light than the human eye]. As light is being reflected back at you from all these different surfaces, we can scientifically tune the lens to suit that scenario and sport. But the important part is field testing. We can create a lens that we can scientifically say makes you see better, but you might not want to look through it because it creates massive color shifts, for example. We have to balance everyone’s unique way of seeing color.

Some of the dyes used to create Prizm lenses

Some of the dyes used to create Prizm lenses

Which athletes will be using these at the Olympics in Rio?
Anybody wearing an Oakley product in Rio will be wearing a Prizm lens. Which lens they choose depends on the sport they’re participating in and the time of day that it’s happening. You’ll even see some stuff which is not released to the public, like a stadium lens that is built for artificial light. Track and field athletes [might wear these] at night.

What has the reaction been from athletes?
Really positive, especially in sports where you see an obvious difference like snowsports. When you can’t see then, all of a sudden, you put something on and you can see the terrain, it’s super impactful.

Do you think the lenses provide a competitive advantage?
Yeah, no doubt. There is a definite increase in detail and depth perception that brings a lot of performance value.

Was there a sport that was toughest to figure out the right lens for?
In baseball, it’s virtually impossible to make a white ball whiter. So we had to figure out how to increase the most common colors that would be in the background for white. When you really amplify the blue from the sky, the white ball pops out. Same thing with the grass, you amplify the green. We played up the deep reds to increase the [visibility of the ball’s] threads so a batter can see it spinning. That carried over to fishing lenses. With water so much blue is being reflected back at us from the sky and then water naturally absorbs that blue wavelength, so you’ve got to really knock down that blue. Then you increase greens and reds so the riverbed will pop out. By creating contrast between the bottom and the top of the water, the fish become very visible.

Prizm lenses create valleys in the color spectrum to enhance contrast

Prizm lenses create valleys in the color spectrum to enhance contrast

It seems like these subtle differences in environment offer the biggest opportunity for golfers.
It’s a trust thing for like golf. You have to really trust what you’re seeing or you’re going to take the wrong club, you’re going to hit it softer or harder than you need to. This lens helps you gauge the front of the green versus the middle of the green versus the back of the green.

How many athletes will be wearing Prizm at the Olympics?
I don’t have an exact number. But if Oakley was a country, we’d have been the highest medal count country at the Olympics in London. It’s a testament to the performance when an Olympic athlete chooses your product knowing that it can enhance their performance in an event that they train their entire life for.


Justin Tejada is a writer and editor based in New York City. Follow him on Twitter at @just_tejada.

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