Editor's Note: Oakley revealed the Prizm React at Outdoor Retailer in January 2018. Originally scheduled for an October launch, the goggles will become available in January 2019, according to an Oakley representative.
If there was a way to transport a pair of contemporary ski goggles back through the space-time continuum to 50 years ago, the people on the receiving end would be in shock. To them, the goggles would be a marvel — coated with colorful reflectives and equipped with magnets, levers and fans. They'd be compared more closely to what the first astronauts were wearing than to the rudimentary ski goggle models that were the high-end innovations of the time.
They'd be right to do so, too; we take snow goggles and the technology that goes into them for granted. The ability to discern details on the surface of snow isn't only crucial to safety, but also to the enjoyment of the sport, and it's the various leaps in goggle innovation that have occurred over these last 50 years that's allowed us to forget what's on our faces when we’re up on the hill. Those notable modernizations have been few but incremental, and the latest one has arrived in Oakley's Prizm React technology.
It's important to look into that 50-year time warp to contextualize Prizm React. In 1965, an orthodontist with an affection for powder skiing invented a ski goggle with a sealed double lens and breathable foam. Venting through the foam helped dramatically to reduce the fog buildup to which the earlier models (and sunglasses) were prone. It became the archetypical structure for goggles as we know them now, and that orthodontist, whose name was Bob Smith, used it to build the eponymous company that remains one of the most influential goggle makers to this day.
Smith's goggles solved the fog issue, but they still weren't perfect. Nearly all lenses were made of flexible sheets of tinted plastic that were bent into a cylindrical shape. They provided tint, but distorted optics and limited peripheral vision (the cheapest goggles are still made this way). Then Oakley introduced the A Frame in 1998, which used a molded lens in a spherical shape, allowing for optical corrections to be made. The A Frame opened up the realm of premium goggles and spurred companies to innovate with new technologies like interchangeable lenses and enhanced color-contrast perception.
Prizm React is the culmination of all of this. The technology reverts back to that original cylindrical shape while maintaining enhanced color contrast for vision acuity, but the breakthrough it provides is the ability to cycle through three different lens tints at the press of a button. There's a tint for full-on sunny days, one for the cloudiest conditions and another for everything else in between. Unpredictable shifts in weather are one of the only guarantees that mountain environments make, and until now our best method of adaptation has been to use goggles with interchangeable lenses. Prizm React eliminates the need to swap lenses as conditions change, essentially creating three goggles in one.
The seamless transitions from light to dark are enabled by electrochromic technology, the same advancement that's used to create smart glass, which has been applied to fabricate energy-efficient windows in buildings as well as the magically-dimmable panes in Boeing's 787 Dreamliner. "There are elements in the lens stack that, when you create an electrical pulse, change the color of the [lens]," explains Wayne Chumbley, Director of Oakley's Vision Performance Lab.
To create the electric charge that's needed to move from one tint to another, Oakley had to figure out how to squeeze a battery, and the associated electronics, into a pair of goggles. Electronics in goggles isn't a new concept — models with built-in fans for anti-fogging have existed for a while — but previous iterations have deployed electronic features using bulky battery packs attached to the strap; Prizm React's tech is integrated seamlessly into the frame. And form factor is just as important as the technology itself; "They have to be married," says Chumbley. "To create a goggle this sleek, the electronics ten years ago wouldn't enable that… it needs to look like a goggle, like a goggle you'd want to put on your face."
That task took special consideration. Prizm React also needed to maintain the venting, anti-fog characteristics, face seal and helmet integration that's required of premium goggles. In an early iteration, Oakley positioned the onboard electronics and the two buttons that let the wearer shift between tints, on one side of the goggle. The construction proved bulky and the button placement confused testers, so the development team "pumped the brakes," as Chumbley puts it, and figured out how to balance the technology across the frame. In the final iteration, there's a button on each side: one to make the lens darker and another to make it lighter.
Oakley's engineers also had the physiology of the human visual system to consider. The rate at which Prizm React changes from one tint to another is particularly important; if the transition is too slow it loses its perceptibility; too fast and it could produce a shock (think about how your eyes feel when the lights are suddenly thrown on in a dark room). The sweet spot turned out to be three to five seconds. "That speed is very noticeable to the human eye and is not too fast to where you get a pupil-dilation issue," explains Chumbley.
In some ways, the natural functions of the human body aid the electronics. As anyone who heads to the ski resort with a cell phone knows, batteries don't like the cold. Fleece-lined chest pockets have been the Band-Aid solution for that problem; Prizm React's is more symbiotic — the ambient temperatures inside the goggle created by the skin are enough to help the battery last for over a week, depending on how often the tints are changed.
None of this technology would matter if Prizm React didn't function like any other goggle, and early and frequent collaboration with Oakley's team of athletes provided the necessary proof of concept. "In the backcountry, I am constantly battling changing conditions," says Sage Kotsenburg, a professional snowboarder and Olympic gold medalist who has been wearing the Prizm React in the mountains since February of this year. "I can’t tell you how many times I'll be ready to drop in and the clouds and snow are in and out, so it's nerve-racking to potentially not be able to see your takeoff or landing when you have the wrong lenses in. With Oakley Prizm React, I feel safer and more confident in tough conditions."
As Chumbley describes it, Prizm React is the product of a 15-year (or longer) evolution, not some serendipitous technological breakthrough. It took Smith's double-lens technology, Oakley's A Frame and variations on interchangeable lens construction to arrive at its final manifestation. Where do goggles go from here? It's hard to say. But even with 50 years lead time, it's hard to imagine anything much better.
- Lens Tint Modes: 30%, 15%, 9% visible light transmission
- Strap: Silicone-backed non-slip
- Charging Port: Micro USB
- Price: $300
This story is part of the GP100, Gear Patrol's annual index of the 100 best products of the year. To see the full list of products or read this story in print, check out Gear Patrol Magazine: Issue Eight, available now at the Gear Patrol Store.