Hot! HydroOptix Double-Dome Dive Mask

By Jon Kranhouse
Growing up in Southern California in the early 60’s, listening to the Beach Boys… it was inevitable that I would become a “water baby.” Mom introduced me to swimming when I was three, and I started ocean-snorkeling by eight. At the Emerald Bay Boy Scout camp on Catalina Island, 12year-old kids could go “helmet diving.”

One boy would be in 5 meters of water, with a heavy metal and glass helmet resting on his shoulders, while two others balanced on a floating dock, pushing- and-pulling a hand-pump to deliver air. Attorneys would prevent that today! It was also inevitable that I would end up making films. Both my older brother Rick and my dad were avid amateur photographers; we actually had a color darkroom in the early 1960’s! Nobody had color back then.

When I was 9-years old the local science museum had a huge exhibit showing how the special effects were done for the 1966 movie Fantastic Voyage. That’s the sci-fi movie where scientists are shrunk down to perform surgery inside someone’s brain. The sight of Raquel Welch in that all-white wet suit made a lasting impression! As a teenager, I was photo editor of my elementary and high school yearbooks and newspapers. I sometimes played hooky from high school to assist a Life magazine photographer, who introduced me to many other famous photographers. My undergraduate major was journalism, but the influence of Hollywood was stronger.

After graduating from the American Film Institute as a directing “Fellow,” I was very lucky, at just 24,
to be hired as the first unit director of photography of my first feature film. Since then, besides
working with a who’s who of wonderful actors, I have shot thousands of commercials and many
second-unit sequences, many with first-of-their-kind special effects. Likewise, my love for aviation,
and flying hang gliders, evolved into gyro stabilized aerial cinematography, and filming from a
customized Learjet. As a break from work, I have gone scuba diving as often as possible, but with
NO interest in taking pictures underwater. My film career involves big crews and big budgets… I
didn’t want to spoil my underwater back-to-nature “Zen” time, with technical thoughts.

It was fate that my passions would be combined… I knew that dome-ports had been used for
decades on the finest panoramic underwater cameras, and wondered why “someone” hadn’t
adapted dome-optics to a mask. It turns out there are several failed patents that attempted to do
so, but few previous inventors really understood optics or human vision. In 1991, optical and
mechanical CAD technology leapt forward, and I thought the time was right to solve the challenges
with superior technology. I decided to be that “someone” but mistakenly thought solving the optical
challenge would be easy. I hired the prop-builder who had made the retina-scan devices and other props seen in Blade
Runner. The mask’s domes were actually boat-compass domes. I had my face laser-scanned to
perfectly align the domes, and the world’s first optically correct Double-Dome mask was born. By
luck, my vision Rx was right in the “naked-eye match zone” for prototype #1. But I discovered that
many people, with much different vision Rxs, could likewise use the mask. I still had a lot to learn
about Snell’s law of refraction and optical design.

First, I needed to refresh my dormant math skills to use optical formulas and achieve predictable
results. Fortunately, a tutor was close at hand: my step Dad, Bill, is a retired math professor from
Claremont College, who’s own advanced math degree is from Princeton, where he also played the
viola in the string quartet with Albert Einstein. Besides teaching math, Bill also became a
professional violinist; you’ve heard his solos on hundreds of motion picture soundtracks, jazz and
rock albums, etc. As a side-note, it seems that Einstein did not keep a steady rhythm while playing
the violin. With great effort, the three student-members of the quartet had to speed up or slow
down to stay in unison. Their running joke, spoken with great affection, “Al, you have to learn to

OK, back to underwater vision…after 10-years and 8 generations of prototypes, real progress was
made. During hundreds of prototype dives, everybody was surprised to see how much clearer the
water looked vs. views through flat masks, even in low visibility conditions. As I learned since, flat
masks cause severe lateral chromatic aberrations, which makes off-axis views quite blurry. With a
Double-Dome mask, every direction your eyes gaze is perpendicular to the dome, which eliminates
refraction and gives you a razor-sharp view. Most important: when field-of-view increases, your
situational awareness vastly improves, which makes diving safer.

Originally, my goal was a mask for divers with 20/20 vision, that did not require contact lenses. Dr.
Iain Neil, head of optics of Panavision, collaborated. More prototypes were made; then Iain got too
busy designing lenses for George Lucas’ first digital Star Wars sequel, and I hired the same
company NASA hired to fix the once-fuzzy Hubble Space Telescope.

Along this development “journey,” Mike Cameron, a very accomplished engineer and helicopter
pilot, invited me to participate in the design of the underwater camera housing that his brother, Jim
Cameron, would use for his first expedition to film the Titanic. The motion picture footage that Jim
captured, and the above-water scenes on the Keldysh (the support ship for the Mir submersibles),
is what persuaded Fox to finance the entire Titanic movie project.

Back to masks: after months of dead-ends, working with the guys who had fixed the Hubble Space
Telescope, we finally achieved most of my design goals for a mask for 20/20 divers (without
wearing contact lenses), except for the size and cost of the optical package. The immutable laws of
physics make the design good for commercial helmet divers, but not recreational divers.

By putting your eyes at the center of a simple thin-wall dome, all objects appear at their true size,
distance and shape. However, the concave shape of water creates a secondary optical
phenomenon: you must be nearsighted to use the mask. Surprisingly, a very broad range of
naturally nearsighted divers can use the mask with just their naked eyes. Everybody else wears
disposable contact lenses. The latest contacts are incredibly comfortable and affordable; many
kids, some just eight-years-old, wear contacts day-to-day, above water.

After unsuccessful attempts to license the patented optical technology to the leading scuba
equipment companies (perhaps they have “tunnel vision” of the above-water variety?), we
embarked on do-it-yourself distribution. Terri MacKay joined our efforts to expand everyone’s vision
by heading up sales. Terri & Jon each worked on Sleepless in Seattle in different capacities, but
they did not meet until a few years later. Besides her experience producing and shooting hundreds
of Hollywood publicity “junkets,” Terri’s knack for producing powerful marketing material runs in the
family; her ad-exec father was the Marine journalist (Lieutenant) tasked with getting the second
(famous) flag raised and photographed on Iwo Jima during WW2. Terri started diving in the Pacific
Northwest in 1971 while doing a news story about handicapped scuba divers.

It seemed like a leap of faith when we first spoke with divers about wearing disposable contact
lenses. But today, almost 1,000 20/20 divers around the world agree that the benefit of seeing
almost 5X more is worth the effort of wearing contacts – and they tell their friends. Over 1,000 Eye
Doctors participate in HydroOptix’ DEC-Pro Network. Most are divers, and some others have been
motivated to get certified.

Upcoming hybrid-lens masks, which combine flat and spherical areas, will expand situational
awareness for divers unwilling to take that leap of faith to wear contact lenses. But for the ultimate
in underwater vision, nothing beats the simple Double-Dome shape.

Want to see more?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *