A Stylish Kill Switch for Digital Distractions

Working in film and advertising helped Ivan Cash see why unplugging is important. These digital detox glasses make a statement about it.

IRL Glasses use horizontal polarization to black out distracting screens.

Chances are you’ve fallen victim to digital distraction. It might have happened when you were getting drinks with friends, or trying to work on an airplane, or making dinner with your family. A nearby screen — playing sports, a movie, or the news — sucked you in and turned you into an antisocial zombie.

Ivan Cash thinks about these moments a lot — and he created some unusual sunglasses to start a conversation about it. When you put on a pair of IRL Glasses, live on Kickstarter now, the screens around you magically black out. Thanks to the glasses’ horizontal polarized lenses, your ambient environment is visually quieter; you slip into a little digital detox. (Though you’ll still have to summon some willpower — they don’t work on smartphones or high-end OLED screens yet.)

It’s a counterintuitive project for someone known for his work in film. But isolation and everyday aloofness are some of his favorite themes. In the mini-documentary Agent of Connection, he profiled a subway station agent who personally greets thousands of commuters a day. In his music video for Photay’s “Monday,” a barefoot, costumed dancer confuses and delights passersby as she twirls through San Francisco’s commercial district.

“I’m not actually anti-screens,” he says. “I believe film is one of the most powerful ways of inspiring, influencing, and changing people’s hearts and minds at scale. My films reinforce the value of being present and noticing seemingly mundane yet beautiful moments. IRL Glasses are a natural extension of these themes, provoking people to question their surroundings and preconceptions and consider disconnecting as a way to reconnect.”

Cash (right) reviewing prototypes with a collaborator. Credit: Jonathan Chu.

He’s gravitated towards some real-world projects, too. “I’m interested in reclaiming spaces that used to be sacred and screen-free but are now bogged down by isolation and disconnection,” he says. He planted “No-Tech Zone” signs and Wi-Fi instructions that prompt social interactions across San Francisco. And his Snail Mail My Email initiative recruited 2,000 internet friends to illustrate 30,000 emails and mail them to one another.

“A lot of my projects rely on tangibility, because I believe we crave real things. Screens are inherently unsatisfactory. Life isn’t meant to be lived in 2D.”

In this edited and condensed Q&A — unfortunately conducted over 2D email — he tells us more about his motivation and his process.

— Katheryn Thayer

Kickstarter: What’s your relationship with media like? Do you find yourself easily distracted?

Ivan Cash: My relationship with media — ranging from advertisements and technology to social media and television — is complex, just like everyone else’s. I totally get distracted, overwhelmed, and burnt out from too much media. I empathize with the feeling of being inundated with too much noise and too many distractions.

What perhaps sets me apart is that I grew up in a household that banned cable TV and video games. It forced me to play outside, going fishing and building forts in the woods, which sounds idyllic. But at the time, I got bullied and all I wanted was to fit in with my peers.

This inspired me to start my career in the ad industry, as a way to finally be a part of pop culture. Then I got burnt out and in 2011 quit my day job. I’ve been independent ever since.

Cash in IRL Glasses

This push-pull tension between a desire to participate in culture and a yearning to unplug fuels my work. As an independent artist and creative studio founder, screens and social media are an unavoidable part of my work. To cope with this, I actively create space between myself and media. I have offline morning and evening rituals, don’t really watch TV, and barely use Instagram. I participate in tech-free silent meditation retreats every year, and am constantly thinking about ways of putting up guardrails to protect my sanity. Putting up boundaries is a subtle yet powerful shift in perspective.

On the flip side, are there any forms of staying connected that you’re really OK with? Are there elements of the typical “digital detox” thinking you don’t agree with?

I believe in moderation. Nothing is black or white. Technology and screens are tools, so it ultimately comes down to how we use them.

There are ebbs and flows in my work, and during the busy times, I’m just as tech-obsessed as the next person. Ironically, technology allows me to spread my message of embracing human connection to a much wider audience. So I’m OK with staying connected when it’s for a higher cause — in moderation.

You mention being inspired by the 1988 cult film They Live, in which a pair of sunglasses expose secret subliminal messages that compel people to obey, conform, and consume. How does that story feel relevant to our current moment in digital media?

They Live was a reference for these glasses from as early as we had the idea, but it took around six months of development and prototyping to finally double down and lean into the They Live glasses design as our main inspiration.

It’s really the perfect analogy because in 1988, billboards and outdoor ads were the main sources of mental pollution and manipulation. Fast-forward 30 years, it’s screens telling us to obey, conform, and consume. It was only a matter of time before someone started blocking them.

You had an idea of the tech that was available to make these, but did you run into some manufacturing challenges? How did you make it work?

As two creative entrepreneurs with zero experience with the optics industry, polarization, or large-scale manufacturing, there have been plenty of challenges!

Scott first found out about the tech from a 2017 Wired article and built the first prototype pair soon after. As we continued to prototype various pairs, we realized that the tech — flattening and reorienting polarized lenses — is actually quite simple. The complicated part is figuring out how to design and manufacture a new product at scale as an industry outsider.

IRL Glasses are still in beta mode. They do not block out phones (or any OLED screens), but our north star is a version of the glasses that blocks all screens. To investigate how to do that, we chatted with some of the leading optics engineers at Google, Snap, and NASA, who gave us a lot of hypotheses but no clear answers. We realized that we’d either be bootstrapping R&D for years, or we could launch a beta pair to build community and validate the market. We hope to prove that there’s a desire for this type of product.

How did your artist collaborators — Shantell Martin, Leta Sobierajski, Mike Perry, Jessica Hische, and ZEBU — come on board for the special-edition glasses?

I’ve always been drawn to participatory projects, so in thinking through the Kickstarter rewards, I knew I wanted to include an opportunity for collaborating with other artists. Because the product is so functional, there was an inherent limitation to what that collaboration would look like, and the idea of just inviting these artists to decorate a pair of glasses using a Sharpie felt simple and pure. The team and I are looking forward to seeing each artist’s unique take.

Are there any other people or projects you’re not working with directly, but feel have been a significant inspiration?

Absolutely. There are so many people and projects who have inspired IRL Glasses. Banksy, Shepard Fairey, Adbusters, and the culture jamming movement question everything and invent ways of participating in culture without asking for permission.

We’re also inspired by Tristan Harris and the Center for Humane Technology’s Time Well Spent movement, as well as products like TV-B-Gone and the Light Phone. Joe Hollier, one of the founders of Light Phone, is a friend of a friend, and knowing that they started their company from the ground up via crowdfunding is super inspiring.

Camp Grounded is a tech-free summer camp for adults cofounded by my good friends Brooke Dean and Levi Felix; being a part of that magical community helped to reinforce my conviction in the power and beauty of living IRL. Sadly, Levi passed away about two years ago, but his legacy and spirit live on in so many magical forms, IRL Glasses being one of them.

IRL Glasses is live on Kickstarter until October 31, 2018.