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Lenses that monitor eye health are on the way, and in-eye 3D image displays are being developed too – welcome to the world of augmented vision
THE next time you gaze deep into someone's eyes, you might be shocked at what you see: tiny circuits ringing their irises, their pupils dancing with pinpricks of light. These smart contact lenses aren't intended to improve vision. Instead, they will monitor blood sugar levels in people with diabetes or look for signs of glaucoma.
The lenses could also map images directly onto the field of view, creating head-up displays for the ultimate augmented reality experience, without wearing glasses or a headset. To produce such lenses, researchers are merging transparent, eye-friendly materials with microelectronics.
Smart contact lenses for health and head-up displays
Electronic contact lens debuts
"Looking through a completed lens, you would see what the display is generating superimposed on the world outside, but there is much to be done before we have a fully functional display for human use," said EE Babak Parviz, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Washington. "Our goal [here] was to demonstrate the basic technology, make sure it works and that it's safe."
Researchers have created a single-pixel contact lens which was tested on a live rabbit and showed no adverse effect. The in vivo rabbit tested lens contains a display which consists of a 5-millimetre-long antenna, a silicon power harvesting and radio integrated circuit, metal interconnects, insulation layers, and a 750 square micron (one-millionth of a meter) sized transparent sapphire chip containing a custom micro LED.
A tiny illuminated section in the center of the device is activated by a radio transmitter, causing the spot to light up. Unfortunately, while the range of the display was about one meter in free space, that range was reduced to about two centimeters when it was placed on the rabbit’s eye.
A microchip developed by scientists has restored the sight of nine blind people suffering from a degenerative disease after it was inserted into their eyes. The implant, named the Alpha-IMS, is placed under the retina, the inner lining of the eye. The device essentially replaces degenerated light-sensitive rod and cone cells of patients born with the hereditary condition retinitis pigmentosa (RP).
The implant is only about 3 millimeters long by 3 millimeters wide, and less than 100 microns thick, making it thinner than the average diameter of a human hair. Despite its tiny size, the microchip is loaded with 1,500 light detectors, which transmit electrical impulses through a patient’s nerves to generate a colorless 1,500-pixel image. In contrast, other visual implants provide images with significantly less than 100 pixels.
Tons of products already use MEMS, but it's just the start. Before October, patients will be wearing contact lenses equipped with MEMS to test for glaucoma.
Imagine wearing contact lenses that allowed you to zoom in on far-off scenes, have useful facts pop into their field of view, or create virtual crosshairs. Researchers at the University of Washington are working on imprinting an electronic circuit and lights at macroscopic scales onto flexible, biologically safe contact lenses that should allow the wearer to see a virtual display.