The Rio 2016 Olympics will showcase a high-tech perspective when athletes don the latest in sunglass technology. From lenses engineered to filter specific colors to help athletes see their field of play with distinction, to lenses diamond-polished for exacting shape, companies such as Oakley and Nike have turned to technology to spruce up their latest performance sunglasses. Of course, they still believe in a fashion-forward design for it all.
New for Rio, Oakley created a series of five performance frames hand-painted in its Green Fade collection, a tie to the original green the brand used in 1980. But it's the Prizm lenses inside—using specific dye mixes to block and filter light wavelengths—that gets the engineers excited.
Athletes see color in three specific regions: short, medium and long wavelengths. By using dyes in the polycarbonate “Plutonite” lens, engineers maximize color wavelengths sensitive to the color they want the lens to accentuate while sifting out colors in nearby wavelengths. “We use the lens as a filter,” says Wayne Chumbley, Oakley vision performance lab manager. “We filter good light and bad light to make it meaningful for the athletes."
That filtering allows Prizm lenses to clean up environments and sharpen details, akin to upgrading to HD. American Olympic triathlete Gwen Jorgensen says she noticed the difference. “After the race when I take off my lenses, it is almost like the normal environment becomes dull,” she says. “With Prizm, everything really comes alive—so many pops of colors and I can see details that I couldn't see with the naked eye.”
All lenses start with a clear, purified resin that gets colorized through dyes. That resin, after an extrusion process, is then placed into an injection mold to form the final lens material. By creating a gap in color on either side of a specific wavelength, the chosen wavelength seems that much more extreme. “We are creating a lot of detail and depth perception, which creates performance value,” Chumbley says. “Color separation is the key. Bad light is what muddies the field."
Oakley has eight distinct Prizm lenses—with one tuned for snow, we could see seven of the eight at Rio—all formed over years of lab and field testing, which includes Olympic athletes.
Jorgensen competes in the Oakley Prizm Road lens. “I travel from tree-covered roads to the open road on black asphalt and need a lens and tint that will help me across those environments,” she says.
Olympic volleyballer Kerri Walsh says she finds the Prizm Field applicable for beach volleyball as whites and blues gets enhanced, allowing the ball and the sky to remain clear.
The eight lenses can all fit in one of the five flexible nylon Green Fade frames, all 100,000 hand-painted in California spray booths. Each frame has a different purpose, with the frames used by mountain bikers, the Jawbreaker, for example, needing to handle the force and head movement with high grip. A track sprinter, however, using the EVZero doesn’t need that grip, but wants a lightweight shield. Golfers and beach volleyball players will likely choose between the RadarLock Path and the Flak 2.0 XL while road cyclists may select the Radar EV Path based on personal aesthetic and performance preferences.
Nike Vision took a brand-new approach with its lenses, creating a one-piece shield construction meant to provide a seamless view and wider coverage. Nike Vision teamed with Zeiss, a European optics company, to develop its manufacturing process and custom molds to create a wrap-around lens without any distortion. To lock in the precise measurements needed to avoid losing clarity in the lens, Zeiss used ultra-positioning machining, a first, it says, in the eyewear industry. Diamond-polishing technology shapes the lens to the “nanometer.”
The new Nike Vision lens will show up in five different frames, including performance frames designed in conjunction with the lens to reduce weight and to create airflow to prevent fogging. The Vaporwing Elite, for example, uses aerodynamic research to define the angles on the frame, all designed for speed on the track.
With lens technology so focused on clarity and color, the one color every athlete hopes doesn’t get filtered out remains the same: gold.
Tim Newcomb covers sports aesthetics—stadiums to sneakers—and training for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.