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All Reality in the Future Will Be Augmented, via Contact Lenses

In the future you'll never have to be apart from the world's data stream. Never again will you have to consult some unweildy box, however smooth and styish and pocket-sized, for communication and/or information and/or entertainment and/or stimulation...
November 26, 2011, 8:27pm

In the future you’ll never have to be apart from the world’s data stream. Never again will you have to consult some unweildy box, however smooth and styish and pocket-sized, for communication and/or information and/or entertainment and/or stimulation. It will all just be a part of you. Information displayed on a contact lens may not be quite that — as anyone that wears contacts will gladly explain — but it is nonetheless dizzyingly close to that dream. And contact lens-based “info vision” is now within the realm of possibility, according to a new paper in the Journal of Micromechanics and Microengineering, courtesy of a research team based at the University of Washington.

“The first step towards always-accessible information and superimposed, data-rich imagery will most likely be implemented in see-through eyeglass displays,” the paper begins. Lead researcher Babak Parviz breaks it down even more later for Motherboard: “[the goal is] to eventually liberate people from having to deal with many different types of displays.” So, imagine needing only one screen for everything, and it’s in your face — sure, like the Terminator.

(a) Photograph of a completed contact lens system.
(b) The contact lens display is placed on the eye of a
live rabbit.

The U of W achievement is actually more proof-of-concept. They built a contact lens that can recieve information from an antenna a couple of centimeters away and project information as one single blue pixel. It’s not exactly a browser window beamed onto your eyeball, but if one pixel works (on a rabbit, actually), much, much more is concievable. Consider gaming, navigation, and, probably most realistically, military uses. Researchers also suggest potential medical applications, such as monitoring eye pressure in glaucoma patients.

“This is an extremely difficult project that pushed the limits of miniaturization (radios, light sources, optics), integrations (all these devices on a contact lens), and low power operation (the whole system should operate only with miniscule available power),” Parvik says. They still have all sorts of problems to deal with. Right now, the lens can’t communicate with an antenna far enough away to be all that practical — you’d just about have to be broadcasting from the bridge of your nose — and the actual material used for the lens isn’t really the best stuff to have on a living eyeball for any period of time. Mainly the stuff used here was chosed because it’s easier to construct crazy-tiny systems with it not because it’s all that awesome as a contact lens material.

The biggest hurdle seems to be cleared, however: designing a lens that allows the eye to focus on something sitting at such a tiny, tiny focal distance, e.g. from the retina to the eyeball surface. For perspective, imagine being able to focus on eyeball “floaters,” those little tube-things floating around in front of your retina that you can never quite look directly at. In any case, the problem was solved by creating an array of really tiny lenses within the larger lens called Fresnel lenses, which are thinner and flatter than conventional lenses.

The next task is “is to incorporate some predetermined text in the contact lens,” Parvik says, as well as adding in the color green. So, yes, we’re at the early stages of this, but “info vision” probably stands as one of the more tectonic shifts on the tech horizon, so, you know, the future is here and welcome to it.

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Reach this writer at michaelb@motherboard.tv.