- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Shades of things to come: This could be the next big thing in sunglasses, at least for those who view eyeware as either the ultimate fashion statement or as a cultural icon.

These ones instantly change color — from sky blue to deep sapphire, from clear to yellow, red, green, purple — with the touch of a little knob and the help of a watch battery.

The multihued lenses did not originate with Fendi, Ray-Ban or even Moss Lipow, a New York designer who makes the world’s most daring and expensive sunglasses, at $3,800 a pair. These rarified shades can’t be had on Rodeo Drive either.

“Smart” sunglasses were invented by one Chunye Xu, a chemical engineer at the University of Washington, who displayed them yesterday during the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society in Chicago.

“Through polymer chemistry, we’ve developed lenses that aren’t like anything else on the market. This could be the fashion statement of the future,” said Ms. Xu, associate director of the Center for Intelligent Materials and Systems at the Seattle campus.

The secret lies with “electrochromic materials,” which alter the transparency of the glasses when exposed to an electric current. Using the same method as the newfangled privacy windows that employ liquid-crystal technology to go from clear to clouded, Ms. Xu’s sunglasses have an added color-sensitive gel sandwiched between layers of the electrochromic stuff.

A little jolt from the battery and some guidance from a control knob hidden in the arm of the glasses — and voila. Colors mutate from one shade to another, holding their tint for as long as a month, and yielding “an endless range of options on one accessory,” Ms. Xu said.

She is not so keen on catering to an elite few. Her glasses use inexpensive, energy-efficient “organic oxides” rather than pricey “inorganic oxides,” she said. A single watch battery can power thousands of color transitions.

“These lenses are more active, more intelligent, than today’s sunglasses,” Ms. Xu added. “But because of the materials we’re using, we don’t think the price is going to be very different.”

Surfers, clubgoers and perhaps Paris Hilton should not hold their collective breath, however. The glasses are still in the prototype stage, though Ms. Xu holds the patent for their technology. She estimates consumers can take a gander at a commercial version in about two years.

“These are a little homemade,” she said of the prototype, which resemble blue-hued lab goggles. The next stage of research and development involves frames suitable for fashionistas, athletes, outdoor workers or those with sensitive eyes.

One high-profile accessories designer, who asked to remain anonymous, said he was intrigued with the idea.

“This is new, fresh. It takes the concept of sunglasses further, into another realm. I’d certainly consider the technology,” the designer said yesterday.

And who knows? What Ms. Xu calls “chameleon” glasses may take their place in the historic pantheon of shades, which include John Lennon’s sunglasses, available at a starting bid of $6,000 for a charity auction next month at New York’s Hard Rock Cafe.

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