Searching for that lost contact lens could get even more stressful in the future.
That's because scientists at the University of Washington in Seattle are focusing on turning contacts into wirelessly powered, wafer-thin computers. Think microscopic smartphones for the eyes, capable of alerting a doctor of medical problems, notifying the wearer of an important event or overlaying computer-generated visual information, such as maps, on the real world.
"The potential impact is huge if we can demonstrate the technology can work," says UW Prof. Babak Parviz, whose team recently published a paper on their research in tandem with a team at Aalto University in Finland.
Drawing on disciplines as diverse as ophthalmology and engineering, Parviz's team succeeded in assembling a collection of tiny components onto a contact lens, each measured in micrometers, or thousandths of a millimeter. The integrated system includes an antenna, a silicon-powered radio and a chip containing a custom-designed micro-light emitting diode (LED). The display, which so far consists of just a single pixel, is powered up by having radio waves sent its way, Parviz says. It was tested on live, anesthetized rabbits, apparently with no adverse effects.
Extending the Internet to the Iris
Parviz says the research is a promising early step toward developing wearable computers in lenses—a new frontier in the dual trends of miniaturization and device proliferation. In the future, he says, contact lens systems could essentially become extensions of Internet protocol (IP) networks, receiving data from external platforms such as smartphones and performing a wide variety of hands-free functions.
In addition to providing real-time notification of important events, contact lens displays could alert the wearer of physiological anomalies such as irregular glucose or lactate levels, Parviz says (his team has already succeeded in putting electronic glucose and lactate sensors on lenses). With more colors and increased resolution, he says contact lenses could one day display text, be used with gaming devices or offer cues from navigation systems. In very advanced forms, he says their use could even intersect with the emerging field of augmented reality (AR), in which a live view of the real-world environment is enhanced by computer-generated sound, video, graphics, GPS data and other sensory input.
The UW researchers' stated long-term goal is to create "a display that can be comfortably worn in the form of a contact lens, which will include a pixel array, focusing optics, an antenna, and circuitry for power harvesting, radio communication and pixel control."
To fully realize this vision, researchers will have to surmount some significant challenges. Not only is the lens display dependent on power being supplied and stored without a wired connection, but it must also be safe and "biocompatible," meeting radiofrequency (RF) radiation regulations, researchers say. Then there's the challenge of fitting all system components within the volume of standard contact lenses, meaning no thicker than 200 micrometers—about the thickness of two sheets of paper.
A particularly tricky challenge is how to get the human eye—which cannot focus on objects closer than several centimeters away—to resolve objects on a contact lens. To that end, the researchers are examining two possible solutions. One would use tiny laser beams to create an image in space. The other would use subsidiary microlenses—one beneath each of multiple LED pixels on a chip—to focus light from the LEDs onto the retina. Displays with hundreds of LED pixels could be used to read short e-mails or text messages, the researchers say—much as individual dots of light form words and numbers on a scoreboard.
Societal Boon or Distraction?
From alarm clocks to televisions to smartphones, people today are surrounded by visual displays almost every waking moment of the day. Contact lens displays could reduce our dependence on these, Parviz says. A wearer of contact lenses himself, he says it was only a matter of time before his group—which works on miniaturizing devices and integrating them into unconventional places—turned their attention to exploring contacts as a platform.
The research does beg questions about its possible societal impact. For instance, could advertisers one day find ways to infiltrate such systems, finally bringing the competition for eyeballs to the eyeball itself? And could such an innovation propel those who arguably already spend too much time glued to their displays to new heights of distraction?
Parviz says such concerns are valid but, in his view, they're outweighed by the potential benefits of the technology.
"I think it's possible to implement these devices in a way that they are informative and helpful rather than distracting," he says. "They could fundamentally change the nature of interaction between humans and visual information."
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