Scott Blew was standing in line at a food truck in Los Angeles when he caught the glare of Fox News on a television out of the corner of his eye. This is ridiculous, he thought. He couldn’t even escape the deluge of the news, or the ubiquity of screens, on a jaunt outdoors to get lunch. You could consciously choose to put your phone away, to step away from your laptop, but then some other screen would pop up elsewhere, whether you liked it or not.
Blew, an entrepreneur and engineer, recalled an article he’d recently read in WIRED about a new kind of film that blocked the light emitted from screens. Plaster it on the glass walls of fishbowl conference rooms and other people could see in—but they couldn’t see what was on someone’s laptop. Blew wondered if the same technology might work on a pair of glasses, to block the screens that seemed to be everywhere.
He contacted Steelcase, the company that made the Casper screen-blocking film, and ordered a sample. Then he popped out the lenses in a pair of cheap sunglasses and replaced them with the film. Amazingly, it worked: Blew could look through the lenses and see everything—except for screens, which turned black.
Now, Blew and a small team are turning that concept into a real product. Their IRL Glasses, which launched on Kickstarter this week, block the wavelengths of light that comes from LED and LCD screens. Put them on and the TV in the sports bar seems to switch off; billboards blinking ahead seem to go blank. Within three days of launch, the project had surpassed its funding goal of $25,000. (Like all Kickstarters, this one comes with the usual caveats.)
“I’m addicted to tech as well,” says Ivan Cash, the project’s founder. “We’re all trying to develop more balance in our lives.”
Cash likes to toy with our obsessions with technology. In the past, he’s pioneered projects to turn emails into handwritten letters, to get people to draw portraits of a stranger’s Facebook profile photo, and to explore the stories behind the last photo on a strangers’ phones. To him, the IRL Glasses seemed like the perfect statement for a screen-obsessed era. “It’s a concept piece,” he says.
Along with Blew, Cash recruited a rag tag group of volunteers to turn the glasses from concept to reality. Originally, they prototyped the glasses using the Casper film stuck onto regular lenses. But they later realized that any polarized lens rotated 90 degrees and flattened could produce the same screen-blocking effect. Right now, their lenses can block light emitted from LCD and LED screens, but not OLED screens. That means they tune out most televisions and some computers, but not the newer crop of smartphones like the OLED-packing iPhones.
As for the design? Cash says they modeled the glasses after the 1988 film, They Live, in which a magic pair of sunglasses exposes the subliminal messaging in advertisements. When viewed through the special lenses, billboards revealed messages like OBEY, CONSUME, CONFORM, placed there by aliens to surreptitiously control humanity. It struck Cash as the perfect metaphor—just replace the alien overlords in the film with the mind-hijacking companies of Silicon Valley.
The angular, ’80s-inspired frames might not work for everyone—but Cash says they definitely spark conversations. Plus, the shape’s grown on him. “It’s not a style I’d necessarily buy for myself, but now that I’ve been wearing them, I feel like this kind of works in a weird, futuristic retro way,” he says.
After wearing them around for the past few months, Cash and Blew have found that strangers stop to ask about them, or laugh when they recognize the design reference to They Live. Not everyone agrees with the premise. Cash says he’s received more than a few emails pointing out that, actually, people can turn off the TV without wearing a pair of special sunglasses. Cash says he likes that feedback as much as anything else. That’s what the glasses are for: continuing the conversation about how much screen time is enough.