What if you could block out screens in bars, public transport, and in shop fronts along city streets? That is the conceit of IRL Glasses, a pair of glasses that uses horizontal polarization to make screens that are on look as though they are off. The glasses are the creation of IRL, a global group of artists, designers, and technologists who want to bridge the gap between art objects that can also function as practical tools for controlling technology.
According to Nielsen, on average Americans spend more than 10 hours per day looking at a screen. IRL artist Ivan Cash is interested in reclaiming spaces that used to be sacred and screen-free but are now bogged down by “isolation and disconnection.”
Cash tells Motherboard that the idea originated with his close friend and collaborator Scott Blew, who was inspired by a 2017 Wired profile on Steelcase’s Casper Privacy Film, a film that can be applied to glass-walled conference rooms that turn any screens inside black, ensuring that confidential content would remain secure. Blew prototyped a rudimentary pair of screen-blocking glasses shortly thereafter, but was ultimately unsure of what to do with them. When Cash saw Blew’s prototype, he wanted to go all in on the project and make them commercially available.
The IRL glasses block LCD/LED screens through horizontal polarization, an optical phenomenon that the Casper Privacy Film makes use of as well. As Cash explains, when a polarized lens is flattened and then rotated 90 degrees, the light emitted by LCD/LED screens is blocked, making it appear as though a television or computer is off when it is in fact on.
“The light emitted from most LCD and LED displays is vertically polarized. This means the light wave is traveling up and down along a vertical axis,” IRL’s Scott Blew told to Motherboard. “To block this light [what you see on the screen] we use a horizontal polarizing filter. You can imagine the filter as a fence with horizontal slats. Because the slats are oriented along the opposite axis [horizontally vs vertically] the light waves cannot pass through the slats.”
Cash, who has installed “No Tech Zone” signs in San Francisco, and enlisted 2,000 people transform 30,000 emails into handwritten letters for Snail Mail My Email, says that John Carpenter’s 1988 film They Live was an early influence. In the cult science fiction movie, the protagonist John Nada, a drifter played by WWF wrestler Roddy Piper, comes across a box of glasses and takes a pair with him. Later, after putting them on while walking down the street, he realizes they reveal the subliminal messaging behind typical advertisements—ones created by the alien overlords who control humanity.
“It took around six months of development and prototyping to finally double down and lean into the They Live glasses design as our main inspiration,” says Cash. “It’s really the perfect analogy because in 1988, billboards and outdoor ads were the main sources of mental pollution and manipulation. Fast-forward 30 years, it’s screens telling us to obey, conform, and consume. It was only a matter of time before someone started blocking them.”
The glasses, which Cash says are currently in Beta, are compatible with most LCD/LED television sets and some computers. As of right now, the glasses cannot block smartphones or digital billboards, which use OLED technology, but are exploring various solutions.
Like a proper industrial design project, IRL created multiple iterations of the glasses. In total, they crafted five different prototypes, which family and friends wore and offered feedback on. Cash says that IRL even tested the glasses in environments like airports, bars, and Best Buy.
IRL is hoping their Kickstarter campaign will help them raise funds, conduct more research and development, and attract private investors.
“IRL Glasses are not just a product, they’re a statement,” says Cash. “Life isn’t meant to be lived in 2D... We’re showing the world we need and deserve a product that allows people to control technology, not the other way around.”