Gunnar Optiks: Do They Actually Work?

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Last month, I ran into yet another case of eye strain. It’s not all that uncommon with me – I spend a good part of my day in front of multiple screens, and at least once a month I go down with a blinding headache that prevents me from reading anything for a good twelve hours.

I’d heard of Gunnars, mythical orange-tinted glasses that were supposed to have patented lens tech cutting down on eye strain and make the screen easier to read. Unfortunately, nobody had one, the ‘lens tech’ description were vague marketing fluff and the online reviews were anywhere between “utter waste of money” and “this is the best thing since sliced bread”.

So when Layan Wijegunaratne (the face of Gunnar in Sri Lanka) offered me a pair of Gunnar glasses for a test drive, I took the chance.

To start with, a Gunnars glass is basically two components: the lens and the frame. The lens, is made by Zeiss from a material that Gunnar calls “diAMIX”,  with an “iONik” lens tint, “Fi” lens coating and “Fractal lens geometry”. No, my caps lock key isn’t stuck. They collectively call these things “i-AMP” lens technology.

I’ve heard some bad pretty product and technology names, but Gunnar somehow transcends bad and achieves a special level of shady marketing with this hodgepodge. Let’s cut through the marketing. What they’re really trying to say is that the lens 
a) Is made of a light, clear polymer with a high Abbe value of 53 (a measure of the clarity of a lens)
b) Is tinted amber and comes with a +0.25 magnification
c) Has anti-glare and anti-reflective coatings
d) Curves and sits closer to your eyes than traditional glasses (like mine)

Gunnars claims that the amber tint helps with colors and contrast, that the coating cuts down glare and the curvature helps prevent your eyes drying. I received a particularly good-looking pair – a Steelseries frame that curves back and looks a lot like a cross between driving glasses and shooting glasses.  It was very light and, while obviously well-built, also felt a great deal flimsier than my usual eyegear. Let’s put it to the test.

First impressions

“Where are my colors? Everything’s orange!”

That’s our own Andrew Jebaraj, discovering that Photoshop is impossible with orange lenses.

The color shift is the first thing you notice. Everything is overlaid a subtle shade of amber, which makes it feel as if you’re suddenly sitting in late afternoon daylight. You can still identify your colors, but everything is warmified.

The second thing you notice is the slight magnification that your screens look like they’ve been moved one inch closer to your face. Later, perhaps, you notice how closely the glasses sit to your eyes: it’s less like wearing spectacles and more like wearing a visor – a very comfortable feeling.

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But while they look and feel good, the first day isn’t going to wow anyone. Indeed, when I put the glasses to the first impressions test, three out of five people didn’t notice a huge difference. “The magnification’s useful, but I’d rather not sacrifice the colors,” complained Rashid Dahlan, a director at Redline Technologies, Majestic City. Two testers pointed out that it felt as if screens had been run through a through a Sharpen filter.  The effect worked at short distances – at medium distances, details were pretty much the same.

And that was the first day.

Two Days Later…

On the second day, I parked myself in an office with bright fluorescent lights and no windows (read: no natural light). This is the quintessential office, and I personally find them extremely depressing. They’re very depressing:  by around 4 o’ clock the only thing you can think of is bolting for that door and making a mad dash for corporate freedom. I wore my usual prescription lenses over my Gunnars.

Here the Gunnars excelled. The amber tint effectively suffused the whole scene in a gentle daylight-ish glow. It makes it very, very easy to concentrate on the screen. Indeed, when I took them off for lunch, the world seemed needlessly harsh and white.

I suspect the effect is psychological. Studies have proven that over-use use of flourescent lights screw up productivity. The one-inch-closer magnification also helped, especially when I had to look down to my smartphone.

On the third day, I started gaming.

To be precise, I started playing Watch Dogs, Blacklight Retribution and Dota 2. I also watched Divergent.

The glasses made a huge difference in all four cases. In-game, I found the real effect of the lens:  darker objects seem darker, lighter objects seem lighter – in short, what you’re getting is a bump in contrast. This does make everything a little bit sharper. It makes movement much easier to spot.  Text in games becomes very easy to read, a boon for Dota 2.

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Indeed, not only was I noticing stuff on the battlefield, I was also noticing marks and scratches on my monitor. Whether this is the tint alone – or the combination of the material and the tint – is difficult the say. However, I can’t say I quite like the tint – it makes everything look like Bioshock Infinite.  I fail to see the point of owning IPS monitors if I have to lose that famed color accuracy.

As for Divergent, it was a terrible movie. The glasses simply made it worse, turning the colors in the gritty scenes into something out of the 1980s.

I still had my doubts at the end of day two. After all, my prescription glasses have anti-glare and anti-UV – they’re not that expensive to get on a pair of lenses. I also have photochrome lenses that tint themselves when exposed to light, going from clear glasses to shades in a matter of minutes.  I had all of this without needing fancy marketing names. The only thing I didn’t have was the close-fitting frame and the lens material.

Noting all of this down, I resolved to keep using the glasses. Perhaps a week would do.

Four Days Later

…I realized these things smudge like crazy, can survive multiple drops, don’t scratch and are notoriously difficult to keep clean. The Zeiss lens is clearer than my day-to-day glasses. You won’t notice this unless you, like me, have both sets of glasses perched on your nose at the same time.

One Week Later

I was sold.

To quote Bhanuka Harischandra, a Youtuber who spends much of his waking life producing, editing and uploading videos in the glare of three Samsung 1080p LED monitors, “They work. I don’t know if it’s a placebo effect, but they do reduce eye strain and make things easier.”

I’ve been using spectacles for a little over fourteen years now, and no, it’s not a placebo effect: the Gunnars actually work. For a specialized purpose, in my case – for reading, writing and text editing (which is a huge part of what I do here at Readme).  Text is easier to read. Edges are easier to spot. It’s easier to focus and extract specific sentences in large tracts of text (like this article). My eye strain problems seem to be gone. Neither do they dry as easily as before.

The anti-glare, I can report, also works as advertised: you can glare back at a CFL bulb and happily notice that the damn thing is about to die. This was readily apparent when I spend the next day roaming the streets of Colombo with these things on.  Aside from the stares that I received, the Gunnars worked well, the amber tint and the unpronounceable UV and anti-glare coatings coming together to chop out the sunny haze that most of us spend our lives in. But these are computer glasses, so let’s get back to the computing:

I love these for text. For movies and gaming, not so much.

I got used to the colors rather quickly, but there’s a reason game developers and movie directors stick to color palettes. Changing that, even slightly, affects how you perceive things. Battlestar Galactica, for example, looked positively homely until I took off the glasses and realized it was supposed to reflect a certain bleak, Spartan nature.  World War II movies look like everybody was fighting in a haze of mustard gas.

My productivity improved. Half of that improvement is psychological. The glasses have good things in their favor – lightweight construction, hardy lenses – but at the end of the day, it comes down to that feeling of daylight.

The other half is Gunnar itself. I took these to my local optician, who confirmed that the anti-reflective coating on the lenses was actually quite high-quality, and that for a computer user with normal (uncorrected) vision, these would undoubtedly be of use.

In fact, as Heshantha Fernando, an IT professional, put it: “I’ve been working about five years as a network security engineer, and I spend forty, maybe fifty hours a week in front of the computer. I had a lot of eye strain. I went to my doctor, who told me we spend most of our lives in front of screens and environments that emit a lot of blue light. He advised me to get a pair of amber lenses. I got Gunnars – and they actually worked.”

So now comes the if/then statements.

If you spent your waking life in the average office – a square with no natural light and flourescents glaring down on you – these things will change your life for the better. If you spend most of your time immersed in words, numbers, things that are fundamentally black squiggles on a white background, these will help.

If you’re a glutton for true color and you spend a lot of time in front of a computer, it’s a tentative go-ahead. You probably don’t need these at all.  Yes, there are clear Gunnar lenses, but these are likely to be more of a waste of money than anything else.

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It’s really as much a geeky fashion statement as a functional product, because regardless of what you want, you can get all of these for much less. If you really want the amber tint and the anti-glare, there’s everything from shooting glasses to fancy sunglasses at opticians’ and on Amazon.com. There’s even f.lux, a free program that will tint your monitor according to the time of the day, thereby solving the color temperature / blue light issue. What you’re paying for, then, is both the medical benefit and the style. Mostly the style, because these things look really good in a very geeky way.

… Unless you’re considering replacing your prescription frames with a pair of clear Gunnars.

Then it not only makes sense: it’s actually a viable option. Frames are expensive – as anyone who’s been to Vision Care can testify, getting a pair of glasses that don’t look like an 80’s throwback will easily cost you around 20,000 rupees or more (especially if you go for the photochrome or thin lens options). You might as well dial Gunnars Sri Lanka, give them your prescription and get a pair of of those Zeiss-made lenses on a frame of your choice. The total cost will be the same anyway.  They won’t give you the daylight effect, though.

Are Gunnars snake oil? A bit. You don’t get an “immediate and profound visual advantage” like Gunnar claims. The only way to do that would be to claw your eyeballs out and install APS-C sensors in your sockets.
Marketing aside, the glasses do work. They do reduce eye strain. I don’t know what the so-called “diAMIX” lens material is, and I doubt I’ll be able to tell it , but it is very clear. They do work brilliantly for what I do. 

The question is, what do you do that needs Gunnars? If you can find an answer to that, hop right over to gunnars.lk and splurge a bit. If not, hold on to your cash.