Oakley lens technology continues to refine

Discover this story and more in HIGHEnergy, a print magazine from Highsnobiety, available from retailers worldwide and in our online store

Oakley is well known for the look of its glasses. They are famous for their way of seeing things. Since 1980, the brand’s high-performance eyewear has kept 50 mph sun, dirt and mosquitoes out of the eyes of the world’s greatest athletes, earning its place on the faces of everyone from home run kings to champions of the Tour de France. Oakley’s unconventional aesthetic (and the co-signatures of sports heroes like Michael Jordan) made the brand a cornerstone of ’90s culture.

Today, it’s that archival status that leads an Oakleissance, with the brand’s bold, oiled glasses shining on everyone’s mood board. But Olympic sprinters didn’t rock M frames for the vibrant colors. Back in the days when “sports shades” meant gas station flame stickers, Oakley was pushing the boundaries of optics.

In order to get a more accurate picture of Oakely’s lens technology, we searched the archives with Brian Takumi, a 24-year-old company vet and the brand’s vice president of Product Creative Catalyst.

Oakley glasses, 1980

Oakley’s original optics were goggles specially designed for motocross. “The shape was very different back then,” says Takumi. Oakley founder James Jannard wanted to increase the rider’s peripheral vision, which is why he designed the lens to be curved, not flat. Internal locking points in the spectacle frame held the lens in place better than the grooved design used on competitive models. A textured design on the otherwise smooth plastic between the face and the lens surface was introduced to combat glare.

O-20 glasses, 1980

The success of Oakley eyewear led to the O-20, the predecessor of the brand’s successful O-Frames. “The O-20s kept the objective in a perfect arc, addressing optical clarity,” says Takumi. “They were also among the first masks to use dual density foam around the face, which makes them more comfortable. Changes to the frames themselves have made the O-20 more helmet compatible, keeping the lenses clearer where they should be.

Double glasses, 1982 (ski goggles)

As Oakley extended beyond the dirt road, its lens technology adapted. The brand’s first goggles for board sports, the Ski Goggles, were built with a double-screen structure: impact-resistant lexan on the outside, transparent and flexible on the inside in acetate. The double construction ensured durability and helped reduce fogging. The old motocross goggles were still designed to withstand. The snow is fair, you know, a little more slippery.

Iridium, 1982 (Pro Frame glasses)

Introduced on oh-so-proclamatory Pro Frame goggles, Iridium is both a lens treatment and a platform. Yes, it’s also the technicolor gradient that’s most associated with Oakleys (or guys with broken microphones). But the technology behind the Rainbow Whirlpool is why athletes loved it. “Depending on the color, Iridium has filtered out different light bandwidths so you can adapt to different conditions,” says Takumi. Iridium treatment on the right lens was a benefit of fast twitch. Mark McGwire, Jose Conseco and Ken Griffey Jr. all rocked iridium coated Oakleys as they swayed towards the fences.

Eye shadows, 1984

Oakley’s first foray into sunglasses had a lot in common with his goggles, like everything but the strap. According to legend, Jannard had gone out for a sunset stroll on the Pacific Coast Highway and was frustrated that his sunglasses didn’t provide more coverage. Back home, he put together “sunglasses” using an O-Frame and two wire hangers. Soon after came the Eyeshades, whose innovative shape found its place on the face of Greg LeMond, the first American to win the Tour de France.

Blades, 1985

While Wesley Snipes continues to rock Oakley, Blades lens technology has nothing to do with vampires. Responding to athletes’ needs for adaptive sports eyewear, Jannard created a system of interchangeable lenses (and a sleek frame to accommodate it). “The Eyeshades were glasses with ear stems,” says Takumi. “They had to evolve into a more sophisticated package.” Interchangeable lenses are now a standard feature of active sunglasses in all sports, from triathlon to competitive shooting.

Razor blades, 1986

Pro surfer Tom Carroll loved the Blades technology, but found their size hard on the water. So he did what any committed consumer would do: crush his glasses on the sidewalk to make them shorter. Jannard (apparently pro-pavement) introduced the razor blades to meet this need. The razors were shorter, smaller, and featured a new “trigger” ear shank to keep the now more compact frame anchored. Oakley has embraced modularity and the growing love for Iridium technology to sell “Trigger Kit” customization packages. Backward compatibility with Blades lenses has given the system over 22 million combinations.

High definition optics, 1989 (Mumbo)

In the late 1980s, Oakley incorporated the combination of toric lenses, Iridium coating, and impact protection into a cohesive system called “high definition optics.” HDO eliminated distortion on the x, y, and z axes, compared to the two-axis clarity found with cylindrical lenses. He also got a patent, giving Oakley the claim that they had unique good shit. The technology debuted on the iconic “Mumbo” M-Frames, using the frame’s zigzag “hammer” temples to hold the bezels in an optimal position for unmatched clarity. It was really good shit.

Hydrophobic lenses, 2000

Oakley’s popularity with surfers led to one of the brand’s most unexpected innovations – a water-resistant glass coating. Surfers wore sunglasses to cut off glare in the water, but the very real threat of losing “the right pair” led many to wear bad optics or spend all day squinting. “We designed them to combat ‘surfer’s eye’ which is a real condition that causes damage to vision,” says Takumi. The lenses made their debut on the Water Jacket, an absolutely bonkers frame known for its Shark Boy integrated vents and headband.

HDO-3D, 2010-2011 (Tron)

Transport yourself to 2010. The recession was improving. Qwikster was still a year away. It was a crazy time for movies. And the company. Also, for Oakley. “We thought if we could get a 3D glass to have a normal shape, it could be very interesting,” Takumi recalls. HDO-3D glasses hit the market at the height of the 3D hype, when 3D TVs and 3D movies were canonized with the same fervor reserved for augmented reality and virtual reality today. The best part? One of the launch partners of the retrofuturistic shades was none other than Tron legacy.

SwitchLock, 2009 (Jawbone) & 2011 (Airbrake goggles)

The next step in the evolution of Blades modular lenses was SwitchLock. A simple hinge on the temple gives users a faster, more user-friendly way to swap lenses, allowing athletes to adapt to changing conditions. SwitchLock was introduced on the Jawbone in 2009 before having a breakout moment at the London 2012 Olympics with the Radarlock.

Prizm, 2014

If the colored slides were 8 bit, Prizm is HDR. The heart of Prizm technology is finely tuned and balanced color profiles for specific situations. Instead of applying lens-scale tints, Prizm enables Oakley design teams to design precise colorations designed for sophisticated and complex lighting situations. Prizm lenses can be designed for everyday use and action sports. For example, a Prizm MTB lens helps accentuate specific color contrasts between dirt and shadows to help riders find lines. It’s just not cool technology – it’s safety gear.

Kato, 2021

Both glass and technology, Kato is, according to Takumi, “born out of the desire to bring sculpture into the lens itself”. The brand’s latest innovation, launched on the titular “Kato” frame, allows Oakley designers to “endlessly shape” lenses, tailoring to specific wearer needs and use cases. In the short term, these tiny details are mainly used to correct image distortion. But on the road, it’s not hard to imagine where a millimeter-by-millimeter carved lens could go. “Tokyo 2021 is our next big step,” says Takumi.

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About Dawn Valle

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