If you walk past certain digital billboards that usually are flashing advertisements while wearing a new pair of specially designed sunglasses, the screen will appear blank. The glasses are an early experiment in new technology to help give people more control over the digital world. By redesigning the lenses of ordinary sunglasses, it’s possible to block LCD and LED screens.
“We’re seeing such a shift in our habits as humans, and I think it’s really worth taking a step back and not just unthinkingly embracing the digital world, but questioning it,” says artist Ivan Cash, who is developing the glasses with a new global collective called IRL. Cash previously installed fake “no tech zones” signs in San Francisco and ran a project that turned emails into handwritten letters.
Americans now spend the majority of the time we’re awake staring at screens–on average, more than four hours looking at a smartphone, and hours more watching TV, using computers and tablets, and playing video games. We see hundreds of ads each day.
A beta version of the IRL sunglasses, which launched today on Kickstarter, can’t yet block all screens; right now, it works with most TVs and with some laptops and billboards, due to the way they’re polarized. But the designers hope to use the Kickstarter campaign to demonstrate that people want help disconnecting, and then raise money to make the glasses fully functional with phones and other devices.
“My hope with these glasses is that it sparks additional conversation and inspires people to rethink their relationship with technology, to screens, specifically . . . I think that many of us feel powerless because screens are addictive in nature and we can’t help but be a moth to a light to some capacity,” Cash says. “So I think that one feeling is empowerment and having a real sense of like, ‘Oh, I don’t have to subject myself to all of this noise.’ It’s actually a way of pushing back against it.”
It’s one of several new tools designed to help fight digital tech addiction. The Light Phone, first developed in 2015, is a deliberate step back to a dumb phone that can’t take calls. The Substitute Phone is a concept for an object you can fiddle with instead of an actual phone. Various apps track phone or computer usage and block sites or try to train you to break your addiction. Yondr makes a smartphone sleeve that locks during meetings or concerts until the event is over, so you can’t pull your phone out. Airplane Mode, a concrete phone storage box, blocks calls and Wi-Fi. Tristan Harris, a former “design ethicist” at Google, argues that designers should redesign tech products to help give consumers their time and attention back.
“My hope is that as the Facebooks and Googles of the world continue to grow, that there’s some checks and balances that grow with them,” says Cash. “It might not be as lucrative. But I think that from like a sanity and health wellness perspective, it’s pretty crucial.”