By John D. Sutter, CNN
Thinking about this makes my eyes hurt.
Researchers at the University of Washington and Finland's Aalto University have developed a prototype of a contact lens that would project digital images onto the retinas of its wearer. And, for the first time, they actually tested the lenses on live creatures - in this case, rabbits that underwent anesthesia.
That may seem like it's out of left field, but researchers for years have been working on the idea that we should somehow overlay digital information on top of the real world. Lots of smartphone apps, including Wikitude, Spyglass and Golfscape – as well as some prototypes for "Terminator" glasses - are trying to do this.
As these researchers noted this week in the Journal of Micromechanics and Microengineering, contact lenses that display digital information are the holy grail for this genre of reality-bending work. Eventually, projected displays from contact lenses could replace all the other screens we look at. You could end up reading your e-mail on your contacts.
Here's the paper's description of the future of "augmented reality":
Wearable computing will likely provide new ways to manage information and interact with the world. For example, personal see-through devices could overlay computer-generated visual information on the real world, providing immediate, handsfree access to information. The ﬁrst step toward always-accessible information and superimposed, data-rich imagery will most likely be implemented in see-through eyeglass displays. Ultimately, a much less cumbersome display for augmented reality may take the form of a contact lens.
The lenses, they say, could communicate with other gadgets to send and receive information:
In the future, contact lens systems may receive data from external platforms (e.g. mobile phones) and provide real-time notification of important events. As contact lens based biosensors advance, they may alert the wearer of physiological anomalies, such as irregular glucose or lactate levels. With more colors and increased resolution, contact lenses may display text, be used with gaming devices, or offer cues from navigation systems. Our 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.
But don't get too excited just yet. So far, the prototype contact lens developed by these researchers only displays one pixel's worth of data. And, so far, they've only tested the lens on rabbits.
Challenges abound when you're trying to store and project data from tiny contact lenses, the researchers say. For one, it's difficult to attach an antenna and a power source to something as small and thin as a contact - and to do so without obstructing vision. They settled on an antenna that wraps around the edge of the contact lens. And the researchers used radio frequencies - within federal limits, they said - to help the lens communicate with wireless sources.
Check out this video for some more info on how these lenses are built:
Despite the limitations of this prototype, the research team is hopeful about the future of augmented reality, as presented by digitally enhanced contact lenses. This was the first demonstration that showed a contact lens fitted with radio chips, antennas and a light source could be "operated on live (rabbit) eyes."
And even though the lenses only showed a single dot of digital light, there's a lot you could do with that, they write.
A display with a single controllable pixel could be used in gaming, training, or giving warnings to the hearing impaired. We also believe it is possible to develop systems with better resolution, color, range and computing power. Displays with a handful of pixels could be used to provide directional information, and displays with hundreds of pixels used to read short emails or text messages. Although high resolution, full-color, stand-alone contact lens displays might be many years away, the technological demonstrations to date depict a clear path containing a number of useful intermediate devices that can be feasibly produced in the near to medium terms. If such displays were successfully deployed, they would fundamentally change the nature of interaction between humans and visual information.
Let's just hope they have an off switch for driving.