Easing the Eye Sore


By Lisa Autz

Image courtesy of f.lux.

Ever notice how after focusing on a glaring computer monitor for hours on end there is a sensation of restlessness that kicks in, making it difficult to fall asleep? The discomfort can feel as if someone pried our eyelids open for hours without letting us blink.

In an office environment, it’s not uncommon to hear coworkers complain throughout the day about eye soreness and fatigue caused by their computer screens’ bright lights.

The screen-induced eyestrain has a special name: computer vision syndrome (CVS). The self-evident syndrome causes many scientists and technologists to worry about the long- and short-term implications of lights constantly invading people’s retinas.

CVS describes the sensations of itchy eyes, blurred vision, sensitivity to light, and tired eyes after spending consecutive hours at a computer every day, according to the American Optometric Association.

The issue of CVS is especially prominent today as it’s become normalized for people use personal laptops into the wee hours of the morning. During the day, display monitors shine bright like the sun’s rays. However, the sun is only naturally out during the daytime; it’s not necessarily beneficial for people to stay constantly exposed to sunlight at 9pm, 10pm, or 3am.

Most periodicals and informational websites advise obvious changes in our day-to-day technological habits. Practices such as creating greater distance between our eyes and the device in use by holding it 20 inches from the face are recommended.

Other experts suggest shutting electronics off at least one hour before bed to ensure a better night’s rest. Still, others advise that 24 hours of technological Shabbats succeed at reintroducing natural light into our lives.

However, Michael Herf, president of the computer program f.lux, spoke with BTR about his software intended to provide an alternative option for future computer screens. The program aims to allow for the continuous use of technology but with fewer side effects.

“We are really aware that people do an enormous amount of work at night–and they are really productive in some cases–so we don’t want to reduce that,” accepts Herf. “But what we want to do is let the body do what it does which is to feel tired at certain times and go to bed.”

Herf continues to explain that his software aims to enact better sleeping patterns by making computer screens adapt to the time of day with customized temperature frequency lighting. The technology adjusts color temperature lighting according to an individual’s location, time of day, and specific geographical coordinates.

On the left is a normal computer, on the right is a computer using f.lux. Photo courtesy of f.lux.

The benefits were influenced by research on how light affects humans’ circadian system. Studies show that the circadian system or rhythm–a physical, mental and behavior cycle that responds to the degrees of lightness and darkness according to an organism’s external environment–can ineffectively “reset” when exposed to excessive artificial lighting.

“One thing we do know is that, for almost everyone, if you see bright lights right before you go to bed it will interfere with that first hour of sleep and make it harder to fall asleep,” declares Herf.

Herf previously co-founded Picasa, an online photo-sharing website, which was later bought by Google Inc. in 2004. In 2008, Herf and his wife began creating the free software in their home in Los Angeles.

“We started from color science,” states Herf. “[We were] trying to make the colors look really good so we can make the screen match the lights in your house and [we] quickly learned that there was a lot of impact on sleep and other things that we could help out with too.”

According to Herf, he and his wife have spent the last five years trying to quantify the research to support the health benefits of their product. At this point, Herf believes that his software is the only one of its kind currently on the market.

The only other viable option is to buy goofy, orange-tinted glasses that claim to sooth eye troubles from over-exposure to LED lighting, according to Herf.

But, why not just dim your computer brightness?

Herf claims that the interesting perk about f.lux is that users are still able to clearly see their screens even as the lighting acclimates to the time of day, unlike complaints of traditional light dimmers.

“I actually think that dimming is very effective but you loose a lot of legibility,” says Herf. “The reason f.lux works is that you can use it at that slightly brighter level and it doesn’t stimulate you just as much.”

Herf is amazed at how technology today is able to create cell phones that provide increasing clarity even on the brightest of days. Still, he worries about the effects of unnatural settings of light on the body.

The f.lux software aims to automate the monitor’s lighting so that the body can adapt to a synchronized flow of alertness and fatigue. The system mimics the ancestral cycle of being in sync with the rising and setting sun. Perhaps as technology progresses, there will be more emphasis on fusing human developments with organic bodily rhythms.

“The sun doesn’t ask you permission to set every night, it just does it and that’s… what we would like to be for people,” illustrates Herf.