IEEE Spectrum has a very interesting article about a University of Washington project to create “a contact lens with simple built-in electronics” that’s an early prototype of more sophisticated augmented reality vision technology.
These lenses don’t give us the vision of an eagle or the benefit of running subtitles on our surroundings yet. But we have built a lens with one LED, which we’ve powered wirelessly with RF. What we’ve done so far barely hints at what will soon be possible with this technology.
Conventional contact lenses are polymers formed in specific shapes to correct faulty vision. To turn such a lens into a functional system, we integrate control circuits, communication circuits, and miniature antennas into the lens using custom-built optoelectronic components. Those components will eventually include hundreds of LEDs, which will form images in front of the eye, such as words, charts, and photographs. Much of the hardware is semitransparent so that wearers can navigate their surroundings without crashing into them or becoming disoriented. In all likelihood, a separate, portable device will relay displayable information to the lens’s control circuit, which will operate the optoelectronics in the lens.
These lenses don’t need to be very complex to be useful. Even a lens with a single pixel could aid people with impaired hearing or be incorporated as an indicator into computer games. With more colors and resolution, the repertoire could be expanded to include displaying text, translating speech into captions in real time, or offering visual cues from a navigation system. With basic image processing and Internet access, a contact-lens display could unlock whole new worlds of visual information, unfettered by the constraints of a physical display.
But how do you make an image generated on a contact lens visible?
you’re probably wondering how a person wearing one of our contact lenses would be able to focus on an image generated on the surface of the eye. After all, a normal and healthy eye cannot focus on objects that are fewer than 10 centimeters from the corneal surface… [so] the image must be pushed away from the cornea. One way to do that is to employ an array of even smaller lenses placed on the surface of the contact lens. Arrays of such microlenses have been used in the past to focus lasers and, in photolithography, to draw patterns of light on a photoresist. On a contact lens, each pixel or small group of pixels would be assigned to a microlens placed between the eye and the pixels. Spacing a pixel and a microlens 360 micrometers apart would be enough to push back the virtual image and let the eye focus on it easily. To the wearer, the image would seem to hang in space about half a meter away, depending on the microlens.
There’s also the problem of power.
Like all mobile electronics, these lenses must be powered by suitable sources, but among the options, none are particularly attractive. The space constraints are acute. For example, batteries are hard to miniaturize to this extent, require recharging, and raise the specter of, say, lithium ions floating around in the eye after an accident. A better strategy is gathering inertial power from the environment, by converting ambient vibrations into energy or by receiving solar or RF power. Most inertial power scavenging designs have unacceptably low power output, so we have focused on powering our lenses with solar or RF energy.
You could also use contact lenses as medical sensors.
We’ve built several simple sensors that can detect the concentration of a molecule, such as glucose. Sensors built onto lenses would let diabetic wearers keep tabs on blood-sugar levels without needing to prick a finger. The glucose detectors we’re evaluating now are a mere glimmer of what will be possible in the next 5 to 10 years. Contact lenses are worn daily by more than a hundred million people, and they are one of the only disposable, mass-market products that remain in contact, through fluids, with the interior of the body for an extended period of time. When you get a blood test, your doctor is probably measuring many of the same biomarkers that are found in the live cells on the surface of your eye—and in concentrations that correlate closely with the levels in your bloodstream. An appropriately configured contact lens could monitor cholesterol, sodium, and potassium levels, to name a few potential targets.
I find this whole project really fascinating.
[To the tune of The Police, “Contact,” from the album Message In A Box: The Complete Recordings (Disc 2) (I give it 1 stars).]