Not long ago, phones were attached to the wall, TVs weighed as much as refrigerators, and computers rivaled minivans in size. Then everything changed. The world has seen an explosion of screens all vying for our attention (Americans now spend nearly 11 hours a day looking at screens, CNN, 2016), making it harder and harder to have uninterrupted experiences and genuine human connections.
I grew up in a household that banned TV and video games, so much of my youth was spent playing outside, going fishing, and building forts in the woods. This is no longer a reality as so much of my — and everyone around me’s — work revolves around a screen.
Last year my good friend, Scott, and I wanted to do something in a response to this feeling of being inundated. Scott had a rudimentary prototype of a pair of glasses he’d hacked together months earlier that — when viewed from a specific angle — blocked screens. I fell in love with this idea and decided to lead the charge in making it a mass-manufactured product.
Fast-forward one year and, with the support of Scott and a nimble team scattered across geographic regions and time zones, we created IRL (In Real Life) Glasses. These glasses block screens by taking the colorful light tubes (polarized LED & LCD screens) found in airports, sports bars, malls, and taxi cabs, and instantly turning them "off."
We launched IRL Glasses on Kickstarter last month and reached our $25K goal in days. By the end of the month-long campaign, we’d raised five times our original goal ($140K) from 2,000-plus backers, receiving press coverage from the likes of Wired, Vice, BBC, Fast Company, and CNET in the process.
Celebrities ranging from Reggie Watts and Neko Case to Randi Zuckerberg (Mark's sister) and Glenn Beck adored our product. IRL Glasses were the #1 Product of the Day on Product Hunt, while gracing the front pages of Reddit and Hacker News. We even received inbounds from ad agencies of multinational brands (the same ones responsible for us seeing up to 5,000 ads per day, New York Times, 2007) who wanted to get in on the action.
Clearly we were onto something.
While our glasses are a statement piece and conversation starter more than a fully functional product (for now), they most likely struck a chord because we're all craving some — any — form of relief from the nonstop torrent of notifications, instant messages, and information that's spewing at our eyeballs, with no end in sight.
Spaces that used to be sacred and screen-free like parks, beaches, rec centers, and neighborhood cafes are now bogged down by screen zombies. A recent study (Quartz, 2017) found that if people spent the same amount of time reading as they did on social media, they could read 200 books a year… or, say, have thousands of IRL conversations.
With the proliferation of tablets, mobile devices, VR goggles, and digital ads, it’s no wonder Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times recently declared we're living in "Peak Screen." As digital fatigue becomes more and more omnipresent, as even the very makers of tech have famously banned their own kids from using it, many of us are asking WTF can we do?
In the process of launching IRL Glasses, we stumbled upon some ingenious companies and products dedicated to helping people reclaim our attention and agency. We were energized to uncover a burgeoning movement of organizations responding to our increasingly connected world by creating solutions to curb our tech addiction.
Yondr helps people keep their phones away during live events — and even Dave Chappelle has adopted using them with audiences at his shows. The Light Phone is "your phone away from phone," a basic phone that only makes calls and sends texts. Getaway is a travel service connecting urbanites with affordable homes in nature. Groups like Center for Humane Technology are spearheading motions towards changing legislature, while Camp Grounded (currently on hiatus) offers tech-free summer camps for adults.
If there's one thing we've learned, however, it's that each of us has to take responsibility for our balance and relationship to technology. No alert, time tracking app, nor product — not even IRL Glasses — is going to change your life or solve digital addiction forever. Sure these things can help, but ultimately the onus is on each of us to define and shape our own reality and to use our inherent creativity to slow down, be mindful, and connect with what truly matters.
Life is meant to be lived in real life, not inside a screen.