Most of us consider contact lenses as merely a way to correct vision without wearing glasses. University of Washington assistant professor Babak Parviz sees them quite differently.
"We already see a future in which the humble contact lens becomes a real platform, like the iPhone is today, with lots of developers contributing their ideas and inventions. As far as we’re concerned, the possibilities extend as far as the eye can see, and beyond."
Parviz, writing in the IEEE Spectrum, describes his research for placing circuitry on contact lenses. Why do this? Well, he argues using hundreds of LEDs, contact lenses could display images and words. Parviz says he has already built a glucose meter in the lab and that he sees "health indicators" as a "huge" possible market.
The complex chemistry on the eye's surface offers a non (or semi)-invasive way to measure a variety of "biomarkers" found in the blood. Add a tiny radio transmitter to the circuitry and health condition reports measured from the eye's surface can be automatically sent to health professionals monitoring a patient.
With something as sensitive as the eye, placing circuitry on the exterior surface of a contact lens comes with some mighty technical challenges. For example, red LEDs are made from toxic aluminum gallium arsenide as as such must be "enveloped in a biocompatible polymer." What's more, "corrosive chemicals" are used to make the circuitry so they have to be layered on the lenses instead of manufactured with them.
Parviz writes that he's on the path to conquering some of these challenges with custom made "micro and nanoscale" circuitry, which is "semi transparent" so wearers can still see on their own.
Commercial contact lenses with such circuitry could be viable within 5-10 years and glucose meters are only "a glimmer" of what's possible, according to Parviz.
"Even a lens with a single pixel could aid people with impaired hearing or be incorporated as an indicator into computer games. With more colors and resolution, the repertoire could be expanded to include displaying text, translating speech into captions in real time, or offering visual cues from a navigation system. With basic image processing and Internet access, a contact-lens display could unlock whole new worlds of visual information, unfettered by the constraints of a physical display."
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