University of Washington engineers have developed a wirelessly-powered single-pixel contact lens display that transmits data by mini-radio as a step toward inventing wearable, bionic computers with smartphone capabilities, the UW news service reported.
The recent UWToday story about progress on the College of Engineering's years-long computerized contact lens "wearable computing" project (also worked on by researchers from Aalto University, Finland) describes how the lenses have been made safer and tested in rabbits, achievements detailed in a paper published in the Journal of Micromechanics and Microengineering.
While they envision developing smart contact lenses into a new means of managing and streaming real-time information from a wearer's field of vision (while correcting vision problems as needed), the researchers stressed the contact lens they tested is a simple prototype, providing proof this wearable computing concept can be engineered out of the realms of science fiction -- away from The Terminator and the Borg -- into everyday reality, though now the test device can hold only one pixel of information and cannot sharpen eyesight.
The contact lens includes a power-harvesting antenna and integrated circuit that stores and transmits energy to a transparent silicon on sapphire (SOS) chip with one blue light-emitting diode (LED).
Co-author UW electrical engineer Babak Parviz explained in a 2008 announcement of the team's success using microscopic-scale manufacturing to produce the lens,
“Looking through a completed lens, you would see what the display is generating superimposed on the world outside."
Last week, considering the new tests of the device's display controls and wireless power in a live eye, he described the next research steps:
"We need to improve the antenna design and the associated matching network and optimize the transmission frequency to achieve an overall improvement in the range of wireless power transmission. Our next goal, however, is to incorporate some predetermined text in the contact lens."
Smart, bionic contact lenses could be used in navigation, gaming and simulation systems, and be used to send medical information to hospitals from biosensors embedded in patients, according to the team.
To overcome the major challenge that the human eye's minimum focal distance is several centimeters, most likely making images projected onto the lens appear blurry, the researchers incorporated a set of flatter, thinner Fresnel lenses into the device to project the images onto to the retina.
The researchers tested the smart contact lens prototype in free space, then fitted it into to a rabbit's eye to evaluate how wearing it affected the animal's cornea and physical health, using florescent dye to test for thermal burning or abrasion.
Though their new testing succeeded in demonstrated the safe operation of the lens, the researchers emphasized that significant improvements must be developed before they can produce a fully functioning, remotely powered, high-resolution display.