The Rolling O Lab Hits the Maritimes

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Living in Atlantic Canada, where the entire population only totals a modest city by American standards, we’ve gotten used to manufactures sending perhaps a mercenary in a rental car, or maybe a display tent and cargo van if they’re particularly ambitious. Where does Oakley fit on that spectrum, you ask? Think “m” words-as in three times the magnitude of anything I’ve seen parked outside a bike shop before, complete with near monster trucks pulling straight-up destructive testing facilities. Never known to tread lightly or arrive unnoticed, when the Big O rolls into town, they unload for real.

This wasn’t just any of their multiple convoys they sent up to the True North. A rare alignment of planets and schedules had the largest of their rolling labs stopping for coffee at St. Stephen. Two murdered-out Freightliners soon hit the Trans-Canada; one pulling the O lab-a trailer full of eyewear testing equipment, and the other pulling the O lounge, which was complete with beaucoup flat-screens, a mad system and of course, a keg.

The first stop was Caraquet NB, where the crew was greeted to a thoroughly stoked populace. Kids skipped school, riders sessioned around the trucks, and everyone readied themselves for a French-Canadian disco-bar experience unrivalled east of Quebec City’s Dagobert. Next was Moncton, which was followed by a day of rest after another night of obligatory partying. Halifax was lucky enough to get two stops by the Lab; first Cyclesmith’s parking lot on Quinpool, with the second being Cleves in Bayer’s Lake.

As unusual as it is for a company to seriously invest in brand awareness on our streets, even more unusual is it to see something like the Lab. Why not just sponsor a competition at the bowl? Throw a logo on our race plates for a season? Maybe a wet tee-shirt contest or two? If it’s all about branding, wouldn’t that be easier, cheaper, and appeal to more? Perhaps it would, but this is Oakley we’re talking about, the brand that professes the blending of science and art and physics elevated to an art form. Rather than simply dish hype into gaping mouths, the O Lab was sent to demonstrate Oakley’s objective superiority-their unparalleled optical clarity and impact resistance. Every lens, regardless of frame or style, passes the American National Standards Institute’s tests for clarity and impact protection-an achievement untouchable by other brands and one Oakley sends the O Lab to demonstrate firsthand to riders everywhere.

Walking into the O Lab, you’re first greeted by two lasers and a projector, designed to mimic light and images, respectively. A steel cabinet of row upon row of Oakleys and glasses by other brands is the backdrop; the atmosphere accentuates the fact that it’s as much about science as it is marketing-the ANSI tests are about to be performed before your eyes.

The Prism Test is performed with the lasers, each of which is shot through the glasses towards a target at the end of the lab. If the lenses don’t bend the beams, they’ll come together at the centre of the target. Brand upon brand is shown to fail the Prism Test, with price correlating near zero with failure. (Most glasses are made by one of a few large high volume manufacturers, their logo primarily differentiating them rather than objective quality.) Oakley lenses of all types are shown to easily pass this test, allowing the beams to pass unadulterated and intersect in the innermost circle of the target’s “pass” region.

The Clarity Test and Refractive Tests are performed using the projector. What this does is throw an image through the lenses, which is received and displayed on the LCD screen for all to see. The complex arrangement of dense lines looks far simpler through inferior lenses, as they blur together into an indistinct mass before your eyes. Oakley lenses are shown to allow a crisp, distinct image as seen by the naked eye. The Refractive Test uses the same image, but rather than examine its clarity, the degree to which inferior lenses skew the image off-centre is shown. Just as in the Prism test, inferior lenses are shown to bend light, placing the image or object slightly offset from its true position in your visual field.

The Impact Tests are performed next. Towards the back of the Lab lie two, seemingly lethal, devices. The first is a gun that shoots a 1/4" ball-bearing at the glasses at 163km/h-the High Velocity Impact Test. Various Oakley lenses withstand being shot without the steel penetrating through the lens; it merely makes a dimple in their surface. Other lenses don’t fare so well, with glass shattering on contact (much to the excitement of the crowd), and polycarbonate lenses cracking as the bearing passes through into the eye of Oakley’s mannequin.

Equally spectacular is the High Mass Impact Test. The HMIT is performed with a 500 gram steel spike, a mannequin head at floor level and a vertical tube that guides the spike-dropped from more than four feet-onto the lens of the glasses worn by the plastic head below. Again, Oakley lenses of all styles simply flex and deflect the spike; they emerge dimpled by its tip but the mannequin is spared. Glass lenses fail spectacularly, and while polycarbonate lenses of various respected competitors fail less so-their pieces numbering in the twenties and thirties-the point is moot: only Oakley lenses keep the steel out of the mannequin’s orbital socket.

Once the dust has settled from the destructive test, it’s time for question period. Of course, the first thing asked is how come only Oakley makes glasses that manage to pass both ANSI’s impact and clarity standards? The answer boils down to materials, engineering, and production. For years Oakley has used a proprietary polycarbonate-like material called Plutonite to make their lenses-a material purer and stronger than the polycarbonate used by sunglass factories the world over. Rather than hire a marketer to design a logo and send it to Singapore for production on a catalogue frame, all Oakley design and production is done under the same roof in Orange County, California. Such close collaboration between designers and opticians/engineers, combined with a relatively low volume of production favouring quality over quantity, results in the objective superiority demonstrated to the world in the O Lab.

Partying with Aaron, Paul and Nick Monday night, a few Halifax locals were taken aback when told they were amid the Oakley crew: “…but they’re so money!” It’s true options like polarization or UV-reactive Transitions lenses can get up there, but a main point of the O Lab is to explain that all Oakley lenses pass the ANSI tests-from hundred-dollar Fives to the highest end custom Radars. Many tolerate poor quality lenses with nary a complaint, but what of their visual cortex? Your eyes and brain must strain to focus through lenses providing the challenge of “virtual astigmatism” (ie. poor results in the Clarity and Refractory Tests), which takes its toll in the form of a headache and fatigue by the end of a long drive or endurance race. The advantage of optically correct lenses is literally clear, but the issue of protection is readily discounted as the shop class factor of safety glasses springs to mind. Well, never fear-put those Oakleys on and cover all the bases in style. In a sport like mountain biking where a flying rock, crash or blown-out top cap could be cornea-crushing, what are your eyes worth?