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Navy Testing High-Tech LCD Sunglasses That Instantly Auto-Tint

Alpha Micro / James Vaughn

And you thought your Ray-Bans were cool.

The Office of Naval Research, the high-tech research and all-things-awesome arm of the Navy, has begun testing blast-proof ballistic eyewear that instantly alters tints in response to changing light conditions -- going from shaded to clear in barely a quarter of a second.

The super sunglasses -- to which the ONR has assigned the functional yet boring name of Fast-Tint Protective Eyewear -- rely on unique LCD lenses that react to environmental conditions, instantaneously darkening in bright sunlight and going transparent in darker areas. 

Navy personnel are testing the amazing tech even now. But the shades aren't just cool, explained ONR Master Chief Charles Ziervogel. Naval warfighters rely on ballistic eyewear for protection in battle. So removing your sunglasses in a firefight simply isn't an option, he said.

"Sometimes when moving from dark to light environments, people that needed this protection were removing their eyewear -- exposing themselves to eye damage," Ziervogel told FoxNews.com. The current protective eyewear comes with interchangeable lenses -- dark, amber and light -- and it can take up to five minutes to swap them out.

The new high-tech shades have several flexible, embedded LCD screens. When the lights go low, an electric charge passes through one layer, aligning the crystals within and enabling the tint -- all in a fraction of a second.

Sound vaguely familiar? It should. The company behind the technology -- Kent, Ohio's AlphaMicron -- has been honing and perfecting it for almost 13 years, directory of technical sales and marketing Roy Miller told FoxNews.com.

"We wanted to get it to the point where it was military caliber," he said. The tech started out with a very different goal: shielding the eyes of fighter pilots from changing light conditions. AlphaMicron develop a flexible LCD screen that could bend in one direction, like a rolled up tube of paper, and sold it in snow goggles by Uvex, called the Uvex F1 Magic Goggles

The goggles were hailed as a breakthrough, winning a "Best of What's New" award from Popular Science magazine in 2004. Similar tech is now powering motorcycle visors that change tint automatically -- a product that proved so successful it had consumers asking for more.

"Everyone always said, if you could put this in a pair of glasses, it would be really awesome," Miller told FoxNews.com. So the company spent years overcoming physics to build a curved, lens-shaped LCD screen -- and making it thin enough to paste into lenses.

Needless to say, the version going into the Navy's super shades is far more advanced than the motorcycle version, Miller said, but that doesn't mean the company won't sell it as a consumer product in the relatively near future. Once the navy wraps up testing, of course.

"These are still hand built prototypes," explained Stephanie Everett, program manager for ONR's Tech Solutions group. Thirty of the prototypes are undergoing testing right now, she said, and once tests are complete, Special Operations Command (SOCOM) is expected to buy 100 of the glasses. But not until they're vetted, of course. 

"We want to be able to prove the concept -- and that people like them," she said.

Jeremy A. Kaplan is Science and Technology editor at FoxNews.com, where he heads up coverage of gadgets, the online world, space travel, nature, the environment, and more. Prior to joining Fox, he was executive editor of PC Magazine, co-host of the Fastest Geek competition, and a founding editor of GoodCleanTech.