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Telescopic Contact Lenses Are Here

2.7x magnification, activated with a wink.
​Image: EPFL

​Wearable technology offers yet another opportunity to be a creepy person: telescopic contact lenses. ​Unveiled at this week's AAAS meeting/conference in San Jose, the lenses are the creation of optics engineers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, with a bit of help from designs developed at DARPA for drones.

The technology involves a bit more than just the contacts. The system is based on the interaction between a pair of normal-looking eyeglasses and the weird lenses above, which are embedded with what are really just a pair of supertiny aluminum telescopes. The contacts are still only about 1.5 millimeters thick, and feature 1 mm-wide channels or pores that allow the required breathability-maintaining airflow. This last part proved to be one of the biggest challenges, requiring years of experimentation.

The on-off capability is achieved via varying polarizations of light selected by the eyeglass portion of the setup. The magnified view (2.8x) switches on when one polarization is selected, and off when the other is selected. The lens itself is capable of both views, but that doesn't count for very much without a way to switch between them.

The point with the new lenses isn't actually to be gross or enable grossness, of course, but to help people with vision problems, a population 285 million people-strong.

"We think these lenses hold a lot of promise for low vision and age-related macular degeneration (AMD)," said Eric Tremblay, the EPFL researcher behind the project. "It's very important and hard to strike a balance between function and the social costs of wearing any kind of bulky visual device. There is a strong need for something more integrated, and a contact lens is an attractive direction. At this point this is still research, but we are hopeful it will eventually become a real option for people with AMD."

That said, the on/off capability—activated by winking—hints at a more general user-base, one with an interest in seeing the world (your world?) in close-up.