Interview: Oakley’s Robert Throop Discusses PRIZM Color Technology, the New Flight Deck Goggles, and How the Two Come Together
When you’re flying down the slopes at warped speed in brutal low-light, snowy weather conditions, you need to be able to rely on your gear to come thru in the clutch. And when it comes to maximizing your visibility—and with it, overall safety—in such a situation, arguably the one piece of gear that’s most essential is a rider’s goggles.
Sure, skiers and snowboarders have been wearing goggles for decades, so why are we bringing this up now? Well because Oakley has just introduced what’s perhaps one of the most significant technological advancements in recent years when it comes to snow optics. Just in time for the winter season, the brand known for its premium eyewear offerings has released a new goggle style, dubbed Flight Deck, which integrates their proprietary PRIZM color technology to increase overall visibility. In other words, it’s the much-needed solution to a problem that virtually every snow sports athlete has faced at one point in time or another: lost visibility of snow detail and depth perception due to the lack of contrast in the all-white environment.
To get the inside scoop on the new roll-out, we caught up with Robert Throop, the Goggles Product Director for Oakley, and picked his brain on what makes this new tech come to life, and what it means for the future of snow optics.
"...this, for the snow environment, is one of the most revolutionary things that we’ve done in a long time." — Robert Throop
For starters, if you could, just take us through what the Flight Deck goggle is all about.
Robert Throop: Flight Deck was primarily designed around increasing your field of view. If you hold your hands up around your eyes, like you are trying to block glare from the sun, your periphery is blocked and it feels like you have tunnel vision. Since goggles are surrounding and protecting your eyes, they inherently block some of your periphery, and hence block some of your visibility. The Flight Deck was designed to take the lens and expand it all the way out to the edge while minimizing the frame to provide maximum field of view.
How does it differ from other snow goggles on the market?
RT: It really is quite striking—if you try on an older goggle that has a much smaller field of view, you get a bit of a claustrophobic and tunnel vision feel. Whereas, once you get used to wearing a Flight Deck with the significantly increased peripheral vision, it’s like the world just opens up to you. So that was the primary intent: maximize the field of view, and the clean design aesthetic follows the actual function and performance.
We also do a lot of work with helmet compatibly because the vast majority of both snowboarders and skiers are now wearing helmets. The Flight Deck was designed to push the lens and visibility as far out as possible while still keeping the goggle within the boundaries of all the best-selling helmets out there.
And so where does PRIZM fit into all of this?
RT: Flight Deck is the actual goggle, and PRIZM is a revolutionary new lens technology that is now available in the vast majority of our goggle offerings. You’ll see it in Flight Deck, but you’ll also see it in most of our other styles. PRIZM was designed from the ground up to solve the problem of reduced visibility in a snow environment. Even if you haven’t skied or snowboarded, you have probably been in a snow environment and are familiar with the complete lack of contrast. Everything is white and there are no other colors to provide that contrast. As a result, everything just kind of blends together and you lose a significant amount of visibility.
In the worst case, when it’s snowing and foggy, and you’re surrounded by all white in every direction, you can actually get vertigo, where you have a hard time telling which way is up. Lack of visibility, contrast, and depth perception is a really significant problem for snow sports.
Oakley R&D has been working on PRIZM for the better part of a decade, and the focus of the research has been to find a way to increase the contrast perceived by the human eye. As it turns out, the human eye is much more sensitive to detail in specific colors and that detail can be washed out by the presence of other colors. What PRIZM does is boost the high sensitivity colors (the “good light”) and filter out the low sensitivity colors (the “bad light”). The way the lens works is similar to what an equalizer does for music. Depending on the type of music, you might, for example, adjust a music equalizer to boost the bass and reduce treble. Essentially, the PRIZM lens is doing something very similar but instead of sound, the lens increases specific color wavelengths and reduces other color wavelengths. The net result of this color filtering is a dramatic increase in perceived contrast and hence significantly improved visibility in the snow environment.
So what’s the real significance of this new piece of tech?
RT: We [Oakley] are proud of everything that we do, of course, but this, for the snow environment, is one of the most revolutionary things that we’ve done in a long time, and the feedback that we’ve received from the athletes and enthusiasts during field testing is the same—that it is one of the most significant technology advancements in snow optics in quite a while, so it’s really exciting. There’s a lot of complexity behind the engineering of PRIZM, but to the consumer there are two very clear benefits: increased contrast/visibility and increased range of light conditions.
And that’s where the versatility of the lens comes in? According to the specs, you only need this one lens instead of having to swap it out depending on the light conditions?
RT: Exactly. However, PRIZM should not be confused with a photochromic lens that is literally changing overall light transmission with changing conditions. PRIZM works in an entirely different way. PRIZM is filtering the light by color and only letting the good light through. In darker conditions, like in the shadows of the trees, you still see well because we let all of those “good” colors come through so you retain visibility and contrast. But in the brighter conditions, the lens is blocking such a large amount of the total light—the “bad” colors—that it is comfortable in that bright condition as well.
With PRIZM, we found that you can use one lens for a given day and you can still see very well even as conditions vary through the day. We do offer multiple PRIZM lenses that are optimized for bright, mixed, or low light conditions. However, since they each cover such a huge range of light conditions, you can just pick the lens that is right for the day and then not have to worry about bringing additional lenses on the slope. For example, if you’re in Tahoe on a day where it’s bright and sunny, then you’d pick the bright-light PRIZM Black Iridium lens, which is optimized for that specific condition. But if the clouds happen to roll in and it gets a little darker or starts to snow, you don’t have to stop and swap lenses because your lens will still work fine. Or if you’re in Whistler and it’s dumping snow and cloudy, you would choose a PRIZM Rose lens for that day since it’s optimized for that particular environment, but if it gets brighter and the sun comes out, you will not be forced to change to a darker lens like you would with a traditional low-light lens.
Because PRIZM lenses achieve this wide range of light conditions through color science instead of being depended on a swing in total light transmission, they work significantly better for rapid changes in light conditions like skiing in and out of the tree shadows. This was one of the pieces of athlete feedback that was the most significant. For alpine skiers, the ability to retain visibility through rapidly changing light conditions is a significant advantage.
So you mentioned that PRIZM took roughly 15 years of development. What was that long process like? Was it one of those situations where you finally got a breakthrough? Or was it a gradual progression?
RT: It’s really two things: The first was getting a better understanding of the science and mechanics of human eyesight, and what attributes enhance contrast and visibility. Then it’s a matter of how to translate that into a physical product to achieve the goal.
The key was to understand how human visibility and sensitivity to detail vary depending on color. By emphasizing the high sensitivity colors, we knew that we could achieve enhanced contrast and visibility. The breakthrough that allowed us to translate that into reality was the development of special dyes that are able to target the specific colors we needed to reduce to maximize contrast.
Then it was a matter of optimizing a lens for a particular environment by adjusting the individual colors and testing the impact to visibility through real-world field testing.
You mention special dyes—how are these dyes different from what other brands are using?
RT: These are very narrow band color absorbers; it’s something that hasn’t existed in the past. We’re now able to go in and adjust color on a much more finite scale. In the past, you could adjust a whole range of colors together, but you couldn’t go in and fine tune individual colors. To go back to the equalizer analogy, previous color technology was like a basic car equalizer that only allows you to adjust bass or treble, a very wide range of sound wavelengths grouped together into one macro adjustment. PRIZM is more like a sound board in a music studio where you have a whole room of dials and you can specifically tune on a much more finite level, and that really is the difference between PRIZM dyes and standard dyes.
So on paper, the first thing that jumps out about the Flight Deck goggles is the source of inspiration—fighter planes. How did that theme come into play?
RT: We definitely are a company that has a huge respect for our armed forces. The source of inspiration for this design was a fighter pilot with a helmet and full mask lens. That pilot has to wear a helmet, but he also wants to have the best field of view possible to see all of the potential risks around them. The goals for this goggle were similar in that we needed it to be helmet compatible, but we also wanted to maximize the lens to fill in all the gaps up to the helmet and give it a greater field of view.
There seems to have been a huge emphasis put on the biology of the eye, and how the eye works, during the R&D. This is obviously a piece of eyewear so it makes sense, but can you just elaborate on that a bit?
RT: The heart of the problem with snow environment is that everything is white, so you really lose all contrast. Normally, your eye uses differences in color to help with depth perception and changes and bumps in the terrain. Since white light is a combination of all colors, our goal was to bring back some of the color perception by emphasizing some colors over others. Based on human eye color sensitivity, we knew that for some colors, your eye can pick up very small changes in hue, while for other colors, the human eye can only detect large changes in hue. For the PRIZM snow lens, we exploited this attribute of human eyesight to dramatically increase contrast through precise color tuning.
Getting back to Flight Deck, can you talk a bit about the construction of the actual frame and the materials that you used? Specifically Plutonite?
RT: A Plutonite lens allows you to have corrected optics, or what we call High Definition Optics (HDO). Our Plutonite lens is not just a uniform thickness; the lens is tapered so the thickness varies to correct your optics as you look through various locations in the lens. That’s all patented Oakley technology. In addition, the Plutonite lens provides great impact resistance. So when you’re flying through the trees, you don’t have to worry about eye injuries because the lens takes significant impact and doesn’t shatter or deform.
For snow lenses, we also use a dual-pane lens, similar to what you might see in an energy efficient window in your home. The air gap in-between the two panes provides a thermal boundary that keeps the temperature on the inside lens more stable and reduces the potential for fogging. The inner lens is also made from a proprietary material that reduces fogging even further. It acts almost like a sponge to pull in moisture and prevent micro drops from forming on the lens to create fogging.
The frame itself is primarily made from a urethane material, which is very flexible. We’re able to design certain sections to be rigid so they hold the lens optics stable and other sections to be flexible and compliant so that the goggle is comfortable for long periods of use and has a maximum fit range. A ton of engineering and testing goes into every goggle frame design to obtain the optimal performance and a fit.
So, just to clarify, Plutonite is the physical material that the lens is made out of and PRIZM is more of a color technology?
RT: Exactly. Plutonite is the material, HDO is the optical design of the lens, which provides optical clarity, and PRIZM is the color technology that enhances contrast and visibility for a specific environment (snow in this case).
The PRIZM Solution, as you guys like to call it, features three different types of lenses: PRIZM Black, PRIZM Jade, and PRIZM Rose. What’s the difference between the three?
RT: The primary difference is the total light transmission. They have all been designed to maximize contrast and visibility for the snow environment but each of the three lenses was optimized for a specific light condition.
PRIZM Black is optimized for very bright conditions. It is the darkest lens we have ever created for snow, blocking out almost 95 percent of the total light. Even in extremely bright conditions with light reflecting off of the all white surrounding snow, your eyes are relaxed and comfortable in PRIZM Black. Because it’s PRIZM, you get dramatic contrast enhancement but it also works over a wide range so you don’t have to changes lenses when the clouds roll in or you go into the trees.
PRIZM Jade is optimized for mixed conditions. Since it is optimized for the middle of the light range and PRIZM allows the lens to be comfortably used over a very wide range, this lens is the best all-around lens in our offering. Since all of our goggles allow for lens interchange, you ideally want to select the lens that is optimized for the type of conditions you anticipate on the mountain for that day. However, if you are only going to own one lens and plan on using that lens from sunny to snowing conditions, PRIZM Jade is the one to have.
PRIZM Rose was optimized for cloudy and snowing conditions. This lens has the highest overall light transmission of the PRIZM offering, as well as the greatest amount of contrast, which is critical for those days of snow and fog. However, PRIZM Rose is darker than a traditional low light lens so it has a much higher range and is still very comfortable even when the clouds break and the sun peaks through.
You guys obviously work with a bunch of pro athletes on a consistent basis. How much actual insight did you get from the Lindsey Vonn’s and Jake Blauvelt’s of the world?
RT: We definitely get great insight from our pro athletes. One of the insights we received through their testing on PRIZM was the significance of the benefit from the wider range that PRIZM provides. We were initially focused only on the enhanced contrast/visibility of PRIZM snow. But feedback we received from our pro athletes and field testers was that they noticed that this lens worked really well when you’re going in and out of the trees, where you’re going from a dark condition and then all of a sudden you pop out into bright light. Normally, that’s such a drastic change in light conditions that you have to blink and wait a brief second for your eyes to adjust to the bright light. But because the PRIZM lens is blocking the “bad light,” you don’t have that significant adjustment delay when going from a darker to a brighter environment.
So Lindsey Vonn called the Flight Deck her “new secret weapon.” Well it’s not much of a secret anymore, but to what extent do you think this new piece of gear will help athletes, whether it’s pros or amateurs?
RT: Every little bit counts, and I would say that lens technology is probably more impactful in a snow athlete’s performance because reduced visibility can be such a significant problem in a snow environment. When people get on the slopes, whether they’re pro athletes or just enthusiasts, they will find that Flight Deck with PRIZM lenses provide a very noticeable improvement in visibility. Being able to see better is almost an unfair advantage in snow sports and providing that advantage is what drives us at Oakley to push the boundaries of technology.