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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Smart Contact Lenses Pave the Way for Augmented Reality

Modern science has been inching ever closer to integrating heads-up displays into our glasses and contact lenses, but the reality may be closer than you expect. Researchers have made incredible strides with contact lens technology, developing lenses that can monitor our health and provide new ways of accessing information.

Someday soon those of us with 20/20 vision could be walking around with contacts--not because we need to improve our eyesight, but because our contacts could monitor blood sugar levels for diabetics or use LEDs to project images straight onto our eyes. In fact, it’s already possible.

Babak Parviz, a professor from the University of Washington, has developed a glucose sensor for the eye that can monitor blood sugar as accurately as a blood test. The sensor runs electrodes through the eye’s tear system to detect glucose levels. The electrodes and a tiny computer chip with an RF antenna are fabricated onto a transparent polyethylene terephthalate substrate (a plastic you should be familiar with if you’ve ever purchased a 2 liter soft drink). The substrate is then moulded into the shape of a high-tech concept lens for the human eye.

The lens communicates with an external device housing another antenna. The device processes the signal and reports on the blood sugar level like today’s diabetic equipment. Minus the pin-prick, of course. Parviz isn’t alone in this type of research--a Swedish company called Sensimed has made similar advancements in a contact lens that detects the effects of glaucoma in the eye.

Sensimed’s Triggerfish lens detects pressure variations within the eye and uses an antenna taped to the patient’s face to communicate with a portable device. The disposable Triggerfish lenses are only meant to be worn for 24 hours a couple times a year--researchers are using them to gauge eye pressure throughout the day and plan medical doses accordingly. But it’s a start towards smart lenses we can wear year-round.

The Triggerfish contact's circuitry is wrapped around the edge of the lens so that it won't obstruct the wearer's vision.
Parviz hopes to use an antenna in his contacts that’s powerful enough to communicate with a single device carried around in a pocket. For those of us without medical need for his contacts, Parviz’s lab has successfully developed contact-sized red and blue LEDs and lenses that support 3D optics. Once they develop a green LED and figure out how to combine everything into one lens, augmented reality contacts will be a reality.

There’s still months or years of testing to be done, but Parviz is presenting his progress at the International Conference on Micro Electro Mechanical Systems at the end of January. We hope neither Parviz or Sensimed figure out how to disguise the circuitry on their lenses.

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