Review: Progressive Lenses

I was in my 20s the first time I visited an optometrist. Bright sunlight was giving me headaches and I had a job that involved driving around a lot. I went to the optomtrist because I wanted the headaches to stop, and I learned that I had some mild nearsightedness: 20/30, 20/40. I got a prescription for some single-vistion transition lenses and got on with things.

By the time I enlisted, my vision had degraded to 20/50, 20/60. The army issued me "basic combat glasses" (BCGs, which we all retro-nymed to "birth control glasses"), and that pretty much put me in the "all glasses, all the time" train.

Here's a picture of those BCGs, by the way, and yes, I wore them for a period after I got out:

I tried contact lenses, too, but by the time I hit 40 I required toric lenses, which slid around my eye and periodically did alarming things if I made the mistake of rubbing my eyes the wrong way.

Anyhow, I've been using single-vision lenses since my mid-20s. I was able to get away with just keeping my glasses on when I was using a phone, sitting at a computer, or driving for a lot of those years.

In the past couple of years, however, my vision has changed. I stopped being able to keep my glasses on for phones or tablets, and the benefit of having them on for using a computer was a wash. In some ways, they made using a computer worse. Since I was either biking or riding a train to work and seldom drove I pretty much stopped bothering with glasses except to watch tv or movies. When I lost my primary pair then broke my backups, I just stopped bothering.

It took a change in jobs to remind me to take advantage of my vision coverage, so I went back to the optometrist after almost three years. Unlike the optometrist I'd previously dealt with, who had a really weird and open-ended style of asking about my needs, this one asked a number of guiding questions that put progressive lenses on the map for me for the first time.

He walked me through how my vision could improve for mobile and desktop devices, showed me how bifocals would compare to single-vision, and how both would compare to progressives. By the time I took my prescription to LensCrafters, I felt a little more knowledgeable about what I'd be getting into than I ever had before.

How They Work

The actual buying experience at LensCrafters warrants a more complete blog entry that doesn't really belong here. There are a few things worth noting, though:

Progressives don't involve a strictly linear progression from "corrected for distance at the top" to "corrected for close reading at the bottom." Instead, the middle-distance correction expresses itself as a pair of corrected lobes that taper from the edges into the center. LensCrafters has an iPad app that does a nice job of displaying how this works in assorted situations and at varying levels of correction.

It's probably a good thing that they have that app: Once you can see how the lenses are constructed you're cued to start thinking about how they're going to work in practice, and the associates are pretty honest about how it's going to take more work to use them than you might be used to with single-visions.

How They Work in Real Life

Reader, I won't lie: The ten minutes it took me to put the glasses on and walk through the mall to my car were alarming, and I was filled with profound misgivings.

You're probably used to keeping your head fairly steady and changing your gaze with your eyes. Progressives don't let you do that anymore. That pair of corrected lobes coming in from the edge of each lens means that as your eyes traverse out of the corrections appropriate for distance, they're wandering into the corrected area appropriate for intermediate distances.

The most practical example I can offer is driving: Depending on how strong your corrections are, you'll need to turn your head to use your side mirrors because they're unviewable when you try to look at them out of the sides of your eyes. The same goes for smallish things on the desk in front of you: You'll need to move your head more than you're used to. It feels strange.

Just walking around made me feel a little dizzy for the first few hours because my peripheral vision was always shifting around, depending on how I moved my eyes. I hated it. My first escalator ride, not two minutes after putting the new glasses on for the first time, was especially scary. In the ensuing week I've gotten used to it and tune the effect out.

While Driving

Now that I've gotten used to the required head motion ("just point your nose at what you want to look at" was the advice the associate gave me), they're fine for driving. No better or worse than past single-visions, which I always bought for use in a car or at a movie.

At the Movies

They're fine at the movies, too. I tend to sit pretty close (first row of stadium seating) and I'm used to moving my head a little to take in stuff at the far edges of the screen. I've been to two movies since getting these, and I haven't thought about them much outside of admiring how nice it is to see things clearly again.

Watching TV

They're great for watching t.v. I don't feel like I have to do anything conscious to see well. They've made Diablo III matches on the PlayStation with Ben a possibility. Without glasses, they were a misery.

Using the Computer

Here's where we begin to get into heavier qualifications.

My primary monitor has a 27" screen.

I tend to keep my text editor at about 30 percent of screen width for programming and writing, and do about the same with web browsers and other things that involve reading – about the height and width of an 8.5x11" piece of paper. When I'm single-tasking in those conditions, I don't think about the glasses at all. I just aim my head at the thing I'm working on and get to it.

Things begin to get dicey when I'm using the whole screen (e.g. typing but also monitoring a conversation in chat, comparing markup to output in side-by-side windows). Then, I have to move my head more than I would without glasses, or with single visions, because of the distortions in peripheral vision.

As I'm typing this, for instance, I've got my text editor centered on the display, and I have a map in a browser window that occupies the right half of the display in the background. There's some 10-point type centered on the edge of that map that is barely readable if I keep my head still, but becomes tack-sharp when I shift my head toward it.

Is it terrible? Not really. It's just weird. I have to move my head a lot to take in the whole display. It also helps to have the monitor pushed back pretty far on the desk so that there's more of it closer to the center of my field of vision.

There are also issues with shifting view between what's on my monitor and what's on my desk. My keyboard and loose pieces of paper between it and the monitor, for instance, are all unreadable if I don't move my head to look down at them. If I had to do a lot of work transcribing from paper, this would become frustrating pretty quickly.

Near Vision with Phone and Tablet

These two devices both fall into how well the lenses deal with near vision situations, but this section should probably be broken into two sections, because one experience is way better than the other, so let's do that:

Using a Phone or Watch

Using a phone was the thing that first cued me that my vision was changing more than single-visions could comfortably deal with. I used my phone and tablets a lot on train rides to work, and always ended up either putting my glasses away or pushing them up onto my head to get them out of the way: I stopped being able to read small screens with them.

Adopting the progressive lenses has allowed me to stop doing that. I've had to change my habits a little to accommodate the lenses, but my phone looks tack-sharp.

That has come at the expense of a small but meaningful thing I used to do when I needed to monitor my phone but was also talking to someone else:

Without realizing I was even doing it, I used to make it a point to keep my head (and body) turned toward the person I was talking to. Even if I needed to keep an eye on my phone (waiting for a call I couldn't miss, involved in a slow-moving IM conversation I couldn't ignore), I could keep the person I was sitting in a room with centered, and they could see that if I needed to take a look at something on the screen, it was done as a quick glance that allowed me to continue to give them almost all of my attention.

With the new lenses, that sideways glance at the screen doesn't work. I have to turn my head fully to the screen (or keep the phone out in front of me, between me and the person I'm talking to) to read it.

It's a small thing, but having been with people who keep their phone to the side, in a place where it takes only auxiliary awareness, and people who make the phone the center of their attention as it distracts them, I prefer the former approach and realize now that I had subconsciously adopted it. In an ideal world, we'd give the person we're with our full attention. In the real world, sometimes you're waiting for that job offer, or a call from Ben to come pick him up from play practices.

When it comes to watches, I have to move my wrist and/or head more consciously than I used to. It's harder to casually glance when there's so much motion from one or two body parts to angle the display into view. I don't like that. I use a watch face with bright hands so that I don't need correction to tell the time (and so don't have to move as much). I'm also keeping the size of the watch display large, so that I can read incoming messages without needing correction.

It's not a big deal either way, and it feels like a bigger deal to me because I don't like to be seen visibly checking the time when I'm with someone else, even if we both know I need to keep track of it.

Using a Tablet

I've got an iPad Air 2, and I'd say that of all the use cases I could bring to bear on these lenses, it represents the worst: The display is small enough that it has to be somewhat close to my face. It's large enough that it escapes the edges of the close distance correction. Consequently, I'm constantly adjusting my head and gaze to read the display, especially if I'm holding it in landscape mode.

An example app that causes me a lot of problems is Reeder, an RSS reader with the standard "wide primary content area on the right, narrow list of feeds or articles on the left" layout.

I can read the main text or the side lists fine, but I can't just shift my eyes to read the other elements on the screen without a nagging sense of distortion. It's not even necessarily blurriness, it's just distortion and bending.

Games with information displays on the edges pose similar issues, as do digital comics – I have to move my head from frame to frame, and two-page spreads are bad. Not pleasant. I've taken to pushing the glasses up onto the top of my head to use my iPad. I think I might be in a situation where I'd be better served either by a phablet like the iPhone 6S+, or a 7" tablet like the iPad mini.

Remaining Use Cases

I'm about to start bike commuting again, and I have yet to wear these on a bike trip. I'm not sure I like the idea of wearing something that involves a lot of head motion while I'm riding. I'm not sure how well I'll be able to read my watch with things like the Strava app, or even to just tell the time, without having to raise my wrist into a good viewing zone. We'll see.

I haven't put in a ton of laptop time on them. That's another thing I expect will change shortly. I expect that will be okay, but I can see how we'd be edging into some strange territory: I tend to run apps on my laptop in full-screen, which is to say at a slightly greater width than I edit text on my big display.

I haven't done any photography with them. I shoot through the optical viewfinder of my camera and have no idea what to expect with these lenses in that situation. I'm guessing I'll need to dial in the diopter to work well with the middle or distant vision correction, depending on how the viewfinder rests on the lens when I look through it.

Preliminary Conclusion

The LensCrafter associate told me to give the lenses a couple of weeks in a way that suggested I would probably find myself clawing them off my head within minutes of putting them on.

That was not far from true.

The initial experience is annoying, a little alarming, and has the potential to make people who are motion sensitive feel a little nauseated.

I stuck it out because I had been warned and because I lived for a good long time with the hassle of needing at least bifocals, then for a while longer with no glasses at all. I wanted them to work out because they were great right away for video games and movies, and because they made my computer use a little better.

I'm glad I kept at it. After just a week, a number of things I didn't like at all have faded away and don't seem as annoying if I even notice them anymore. The one thing they're simply no good at – using an iPad – isn't a pressing issue to me and I don't think anything would work particularly well given the oddball dimensions of the display. If I had to do work with the iPad, such as writing, I would probably have it positioned closer to the mid-range anyhow.

The use cases I haven't gotten to (biking, photography) are important to me, so this review is particularly early. I think the color code should weigh more heavily in how much credibility you give it.

About the Progressive Lenses

Summary: Glasses that support three viewing distances, but come with some tradeoffs and require some conscious changes of habit.

Purpose: I wanted to keep my glasses on all the time, whether driving, using a computer, or using my phone.

Date bought: November 9, 2015

Good buy? So far, so good but there are some real tradeoffs and annoyances you might have a hard time seeing past.

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Things is © 2015 Mike Hall.