Spectracles

by coolbeams

I co-founded Cool Beams with the desire to create unique and exciting products and apparel.  Our flagship product, Spectracles, is a new take on flip-up eyewear.  We brought my initial concept from napkin sketches and flimsy prototypes to a precision-engineered, mass-produced product.  Combining fashion, moving parts, and user interaction proved no easy feat, and we learned a lot along the way.

 

 

Here's a broad look at the process that created Spectracles.

 

Needfinding

2011 saw a marked rise in the popularity of electronic music.  While attending my first music festival that year, I was eager to apply my newly acquired human-centered design methodology to the spectacle of lights and music before me.   On the lookout for nuggets of insight, I encountered multiple memorable pieces of inspiration.

 

 

First, on the way to the concert, I saw a young man wearing flip-up sunglasses making eye contact with passersby, then flipping up the front lenses -- usually eliciting a smile or laugh from the walker, or even serving as a springboard for conversation.  Flip-up glasses had an interesting potential for social interaction beyond passive style.

Next, I had my first encounter with diffraction film, which explodes light into its component wavelengths, turning any light source into a rainbow.  The diffraction glasses were cheap paper ones, the shape reminiscent of the old red blue 3D glasses. I quickly found that I could double the rainbow effect by overlaying another diffraction layer at an offset angle.

At the festival I attended, non-utilitarian eye-wear was a common occurrence— with people often wearing neon-framed sunglasses with the lenses popped out. After the event, the floor would be littered with their broken frames.  Would they still be tossed aside if the glasses were more novel and stylish?

After examining these observations and their nuances more extensively, I wanted to design a pair of glasses that were as loud as the music that inspired them, while enabling the aesthetic enhancement of diffraction, and the unique interaction quality of flip-up glasses.

I isolated three areas on which to focus my design:

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Aesthetic Enhancement

Diffraction lenses separate light into its component wavelengths, creating a striking visual effect.

 

I experimented with overlaying multiple layers of diffraction at different angles, enhancing the effect even further.

Utility

Switching between modes of vision with ease.

 

In our current use case, we noted the difficulty of navigating crowds while wearing diffraction lenses.  Flipping up would allow for the user to leave them on, accentuating their style and allowing easy rainbow access.

Social Interaction

Eye contact is a powerful form of communication.

 

A gaze can express volumes without words, which makes flip-up glasses an interesting and uniquely interactive fashion accessory.

Ideation

The initial ideation phase is always exciting— a blank canvas with seemingly unlimited possibilities.  An important part of early idea exploration is to ignore practical considerations (like manufacturing limitations).  By entertaining any idea, no matter how ridiculous, it leads your brain through a web of possibilities, often yielding unexpected ideas that you could not have arrived at otherwise.

Here's one of the many "mindmaps" in which I explored my design insights.  Mindmapping is a process of organizing one's stream of consciousness and connecting ideas to find the unexpected. One interesting aspect of this one is that "Ben Franklin" (who had flip up glasses according to the movie National Treasure) led to the idea of interchangeable lenses and flip-up goggles for welding.

Ideation is an important strategy throughout my process, existing in a tight feedback loop with prototyping and testing, and useful to help solve both design and engineering challenges.

Prototyping

Over the course of development, we made hundreds of prototypes, utilizing a variety of fabrication methods and materials.  Our design constraints were manifold, including competing goals that interacted with each other in complex ways.  Our many prototypes tested comfort, style, the ease of the flip-up interaction, and mechanical engineering constraints associated with mass production.

First Concept

Initially, my concept used the same classic paradigm of flip-up glasses...

 

Historically, flip-up glasses have been designed so that the set of front lenses swing away from the wearer’s face, manually raised up until they rest in a vertical position.

First Prototype

I quickly made this one in the wood shop, using cabinet hinges for the temples (that's what the 'arms' on glasses are called).  The flip lenses here are rotated 45° from the back lenses, which doubles the diffraction effect.

"This concept is boring, take it further."

- My former professor and adviser, providing blunt, honest feedback.

Rethinking the Design

The view of single to double diffraction in my first prototype was quite beautiful, but both the flipping mechanism and shape of the frame were not significantly different than existing designs.  The shape resembled the classic Wayfairer design, and the lens flipped in the classic way.

Figure A.

Figure B.

Design Breakthrough

I put my ideation helmet on and went back to the drawing board, considering a variety of wacky looking styles and lenses. This exploration led me to consider the use of more mechanical elements in the flip.

 

Mental gears turning, I considered... gears. By utilizing interfacing gears between the two front lenses, I could link the position of the two lenses without them being directly attached as one piece. I thought to change the plane of action for lens flipping.  Instead of rotating  on the typical plane (Figure A.), the lenses would rotate parallel to the wearer's face, each in an opposite direction (Figure B).  If flip-up glasses were cars, these would have Lamborghini doors.

First Gear-based Prototype

The first prototype of the gear-based design was laser-cut, with hinges harvested from gas station sunglasses.  The flip relied on 100% human power.  The wearer would push the lenses fully up, past a gear-tooth that was larger than the rest, in order to keep the lenses in the up position until pushed back down.

Gears and Spring Prototype

The next prototype for the mechanism integrated a spring that would pull the lenses up when the catch was released.  While this mechanism was satisfying, it was problematic in that the constant pull of the spring while the lenses were in the down position caused a noticeable gap between lens and frame, coming into conflict with the aesthetics necessary for a fashion item.

Collaborative Effort Begins

Excited about the prototype, I showed my friend Tom (modeling the glasses here).  He shared my enthusiasm for the design, and we decided to develop the product further.  With Tom on board, we started to conduct extensive engineering, market, and user testing.

User Testing

Our first goal was to assess the appeal of the glasses to our target demographic.  My first prototypes were flimsy and utilitarian so we wanted to make more polished versions that we would take to concerts and show around to our target demographic to get feedback on the interaction and style. Aesthetically, we first approached the problem of the gap between the lens and frame.  I proposed implementing an overcenter linkage.  In this mechanism, an elastic cord pulls the lenses toward the frame in the down position. To flip up, the wearer gives a slight push up on the lens until the elastic cord is above the axle, at which point its tension will continue it to the up position.

Unexpected Behavior

One interesting observed behavior with interactive element of the glasses was that most people were so used to the classic paradigm of flip-up glasses that they would try to push the lenses forward (despite the resistance)— and since the axles for the lenses that you see above were literally made from K'Nex, people would sometimes snap them off.  Overall, we were thrilled about people's enthusiasm for the product, and we wanted to take our prototypes to the next level.  Our objective was to engineeer a durable product, so we started prototyping different mechanical designs.  We transitioned to using a CNC to give us the ability to cut at multiple depths, allowing us to explore potential engineering solutions for fabrication.

Engineering

After nailing down fit, style and interaction through extensive user testing with our friends and in the wild, we formulated our manufacturing plan.  Our tests confirmed that injection molding was the best way to mass produce Spectracles.  Since injection molding can be unpredictable and expensive, we explored current the state of the art technology to help mitigate our lack of experience with the molding process.

Using Autodesk Inventor, we created the 3D form of the glasses frames.  We used the mold-flow analysis function to make sure that the plastic would fill out the form correctly, avoiding sinks or unsightly seams.  In order to enable aesthetic style features that made the form more complex, we designed an insert mold.

 

Before making the actual molds, we tested our models' interaction with the parts of the glasses that would not be injection molded.  In order to make sure our design would work with other components, we ordered a box of samples of temples from multiple suppliers, took measurements, and 3d-printed prototypes to test the fit with the hinges.

With all the parts fully engineered, we were ready to start manufacturing.

Fabrication

Injection molding both excited and scared us.  While it meant we would finally be making our first legitimate physical product using an industry-standard fabrication method, injection molding seemed a daunting process where a miscalculation or unknown variable could lead to useless (and expensive) molds.  We found a local expert injection molding tool maker named Elfy (he actually made the first molds for the iPod and iPhone).  Not only did he make us high quality molding tools, he provided valuable guidance and support throughout the process.

Elfy's shop has state of the art machinery for making molding tools.  One of our parts required small scale detail, and he used a process called EDM (Electrical Discharge Machining) to create the mold.  A funny coincidence that EDM both inspired and physically created our product.

The parts fit together perfectly, much to our relief.

Redesign for Sturdiness

 

Our product was still not as sturdy as we would have liked in the rotational access orthogonal to the plane of action (and they remained structurally vulnerable to the issue of user bias toward the previous flip-up paradigm).  We made another set of prototypes of designs to experiment with the best way for the lenses to capture the gear.  We re-designed the piece on the front of the lenses for sturdiness, and its strength was greatly improved.

Success! We had designed and engineered a product... now it was time to sell it.

Branding

For our brand, we looked back to the initial design insights.  We wanted to highlight the fashion, interaction, and aesthetic enhancement that Spectracles enable.  To show off the style and mechanism of the glasses, we needed sleek product photos, and images of people looking cool and excited wearing them.  We rigged a studio lighting setup for the product shoot, producing all the product images shown on this page.  We convinced our friends to model the glasses for us, as well as showing them around at concerts and snapping candid photos of wearers (used with their permission).

First time reactions to Spectracles are priceless.

"whooaaaaaaaa"

"Oh my god these are amazing!"

Marketing

We employed multiple strategies to get the word out about Spectracles,  centering around both in-person/organic word of mouth, and online presence.  Our online approach used traditional methods of finding the optimal target audience using Facebook's and Google's advertising tools.  A surprising amount of our customers were overseas (we're big in Japan). While most of our sales were online, we also had some success with retail, with Spectracles prominently displayed in multiple brick and mortar shops in California and New York.

We made business cards— you might say business glasses— that the recipient would be more likely to keep.  We designed and ordered paper diffraction glasses with our information printed on the inside.  The cost of production also didn't too far exceed the normal cost of premium business cards.  The glasses also served to exhibit some of the diffraction lens options that we sold to those who had not yet seen them.

Spectracles were a success in that we made a product that people loved, and in the process we learned a lot about design and engineering.  We are thrilled that we succeeded in producing and selling over 1,000 pairs of a highly complex physical product.

 

As of right now, Tom and I are working on other projects, so Cool Beams is on hiatus.  Eventually we plan to circle back with renewed vigor to re-engineer the glasses to enable interchangeable lenses, and continue our quest to bring rainbows to everyone.

Next Steps

Featured:

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We employed multiple strategies to get the word out about Spectracles,  centering around both in-person/organic word of mouth, and online presence.  Our online approach used traditional methods of finding the optimal target audience using Facebook's and Google's advertising tools. While most of our sales were online, we also had some success with retail, with Spectracles prominently displayed in multiple brick and mortar shops in California and New York.

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