SALT LAKE CITY — As a man in his 50s, Carlos Mastrangelo is well aware of the subtle but distinct realities of aging — like having your vision change enough to make reading or driving more challenging. It’s what eventually prompts many people get glasses in middle age.
Mastrangelo, 58, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Utah, is a part of a trio of U. researchers that have developed a new technology that could change the way people see using corrective lenses. The team has created Adaptive Glasses — smart lenses that automatically put into focus what a user is looking at, whether that object is up close or at a distance.
As people get older, the natural ability for eyes to adjust to varying sight distances — the “accommodation range” — diminishes, he explained.
“This is an age-related condition, so it happens to every(one) to some degree,” he said. “And for some it gets worse.”
He said the eye’s natural lens becomes less flexible, making it more difficult to adjust to different distances. For years, the primary solution to the problem has been limited to basic corrective lenses, he said, the same technology that has been in use for decades.
“There has been no advances in eyewear since the 1950s,” Mastrangelo said.
The liquid lenses use a minute laser and a small amount of electricity to autofocus, he explained, controlled by an electronic actuator that compresses or stretches the lens based on what the individual is looking at.
The Adaptive Glasses work similarly to bifocal or multifocal spectacles in that they provide the user with a range of focus beyond traditional single vision eyewear, but with greater versatility, he noted. They possess the same function of having focus and different depths without becoming blurry in the other sections of the lenses, he added.
The Adaptive Glasses were developed by Mastrangelo, associate professor Hanseup Kim and graduate assistant Nazmul Hasan. The team — all members of the same department — used a $1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop the technology and is hoping to attract attention from investors at this week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. They want to make the lenses available commercially in the next two to three years, Mastrangelo said.
The event attracts 170,000 people and hosts presentations of new products and technologies, typically in the consumer electronics industry. Among the other Utah innovations on exhibit is the Tetra Universal Controller — a device developed to enhance the capabilities of individuals with quadriplegia or tetraplegia who use “sip and puff” systems to control mobility devices.
The controller was developed by Jeffrey Rosenbluth, associate professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the U., Ross Imburgia, research engineer in the university’s Division of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Roger Altizer, director of The GApp Lab at the U., and assistant professor of mechanical engineering Andrew Merryweather.
The device incorporates various control modalities to help individuals with disabilities have greater independence and allows users to employ ‘sips and puffs’ to operate numerous devices.
“You can think of it as Morse codes, where sips are dots and puffs are dashes,” Merryweather said. “Through sequencing those combinations, you can write sentences to dictate what an apparatus does.”
Traditional systems typically only recognize changes in pressure, he said, with a hard puff, for example, enabling a wheelchair to move forward, while a soft sip might stop it. The ability to perform complex actions or sequences in these current systems is significantly limited, he noted. The Tetra Universal Controller combines pattern recognition, timing and pressure intensity, which allows for a virtually unlimited number of control directives, he said. The ability to input complex commands enables the control of various household and office electronics, such as televisions, thermostats, lighting, doors and windows.
It was even tested to control both physical and virtual adaptive skis and kayaks, he noted.
“We want to get our technology out there so people can start dreaming of other things that can be used and controlled by our hardware,” Merryweather said. “We think it will open a lot of doors for people with disabilities who are looking for something like this, but haven’t had the tools to do so.”
Another innovation being featured is the UPlay Piano —a web-based, interactive software program that helps young kids learn to play the piano. It was developed by a team in the university’s School of Music, including associate instructor Lindsey Wright, professor Susan Duehlmeier, adjunct professor Cassandra Olsen-Taylor, Roger Altizer, director of The GApp Lab and Jared Pierce, a Utah alum and current assistant professor at the BYU School of Music.
Each lesson contains an illustrated narrative that includes new concepts, demonstrations and game sections that help students learn theory, piano pieces for practice and tests to reinforce knowledge of the concepts, explained Vince Horiuchi, spokesman for the U.'s College of Engineering. The program also employs a link to connect students to an interactive online website as they practice on any electronic keyboard, he said. The platform will also include an online database allowing parents and teachers to track student progress, he added.