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Google Glass Today, Smart Contact Lenses Tomorrow?

It might take a decade or more, but projects from Imec and others could eventually bring augmented-reality contact lenses to life.
July 25, 2013

Though it may be hard to imagine now, we may eventually be able to ditch head-worn devices like Google Glass and simply see images projected floating in front of us using contact lenses.

Researchers at Belgian nonelectronics reseach and development center Imec and Belgium’s Ghent University are in the very early stages of developing such a device, which would bring augmented reality–the insertion of digital imagery such as virtual signs and historical markers with the real world–right to your eyeballs. It’s just one of several such projects (see “Contact Lens Computer: It’s Like Google Glass Without The Glasses”), and while the idea is nowhere near the point where you could ask your eye doctor for a pair, it could become more realistic as the cost and size of electronic components continue to fall and wearable gadgets gain popularity.

Speaking on the sidelines of the Wearable Technologies conference in San Francisco on Tuesday, Eric Dy, Imec’s North America business development manager, said researchers are investigating the feasibility of integrating an array of micro lenses with LEDs, using the lenses to help focus light and project it onto the wearer’s retinas.

Not surprisingly, there are a slew of challenges to get past before we’re popping AR-enhanced contact lenses into our eyes. Beyond the obvious one of fitting components such as a display, an antenna for wireless data communications, a chip to process data, and tiny battery onto a tiny, thin, curved surface, there’s the issue of focus: the eye can’t resolve anything as close as a contact lens would be, so it’s not yet–ahem–clear how to display a crisp image on the user’s retina.

Dy doesn’t think it will be possible to fit a camera onto the lens (a necessary part for identifying relevant objects in the real world that can be augmented with digital images). Rather, he expects it to be worn by the user. But Dy says, researchers already believe they can at least project low-resolution images onto the retina, like arrows to help give directions or a blinking light to warn you that your heart rate is too high.

If you like the idea, you may want to pick up Google Glass or another glasses-like device in the meantime. Researchers hope to have a fully-functioning prototype within three years, Dy says, but he believes a set of contact lenses is “probably over 10 years out.”

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