You might think that ordinary contact lenses are already pretty sophisticated, but thanks to the biotechnological and biomedical advances that have taken place in recent years, they may become even more impressive. As powerful technologies become smaller and more flexible, a whole world of possibilities is opening up for the next generation of contact lenses. Read on for a closer look at what could be in store.
In Switzerland, research teams at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne have developed a prototype contact lens specially designed for people with low vision or those experiencing age-related macular degeneration. The soft, breathable lenses are able to magnify the view up to nearly three times, thanks to an embedded super-thin reflective telescope. Announced in 2015, the lenses would be worn in combination with electronic glasses that allow the wearer to control the level of magnification by winking.
In 2012, Jelle De Smet, a doctoral student at the University of Ghent in Belgium, developed a prototype for text-receiving contact lenses. His design fits in with the growing trend in wearable technologies—hardware devices, of which Google Glass is perhaps the best-known example, that allow you to access or interact with information in a new, closer way. De Smet’s prototype consists of a curved LCD display showing a simple dollar sign, in a joke riffing on images of classic cartoon characters. In addition, his lens contains a solar cell for power, a backup battery, a sensor, an antenna, and a controller chip. Clearly, there is still a great deal of work to be done: while the displayed image can be seen from the outside, the wearer is currently unable to see it because it is below the minimum focal length of the eye’s lens.
The idea of using small wearable devices, such as contact lenses, to track and monitor the wearer’s health has become very prevalent in recent years. In 2014, Google X unveiled a prototype of a contact lens designed for people with diabetes; equipped with implanted technology, the lens was able to rapidly generate glucose level readings from nothing more than tears. After securing a patent for the prototype in 2015, Google is currently pursuing this work even further by exploring solar-powered contact lenses capable of detecting biological data and potential allergens, in addition to using retinal analysis for identity verification.
Transparent augmented reality displays are becoming more popular in vehicles and motorcycle helmets. Now, a tech company based in Bellevue, Washington, is taking that idea a step further and pairing augmented reality with contact lenses. In 2014, Innovega announced a prototype of their new iOptik contact lenses, which feature embedded optical elements that allow the wearer to simultaneously focus on virtual content from the contact lenses and on sharp, real-world detail. The iOptik lenses allow light from the augmented reality display to pass through the middle of the pupil while light from the surrounding environment passes through the pupil’s outer ring, thus superimposing the information from both sources to create a single integrated image.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison took a step closer to self-correcting contact lenses with a tiny artificial eye that they developed in 2016. Inspired by the light-gathering retina found in certain species of fish, the researchers’ artificial eye has thousands of aluminum-covered light collectors, which allow the eye to automatically focus in milliseconds according to changing light conditions. This prototype could lead to contact lenses that allow the wearer to auto-focus on objects both close up and far away, thus effectively becoming a pair of eyes that don’t wear out with age and potentially reducing the need for laser surgery, bifocals, or trifocals.
Night vision technology up to this point has required a certain amount of bulky equipment in order to keep the apparatus cool enough to allow it to detect heat. In 2014, however, researchers at the University of Michigan developed a light detector that was capable of sensing the full infrared spectrum at room temperature. Additionally, their graphene-based design was so thin it could be stacked on a contact lens. In 2015, an MIT research term went one better, using graphene to create a thermal sensor just one atom in thickness.
The most futuristic of these contact lens prototypes and designs is still far from reality, but interesting nonetheless. In April 2016, Sony filed a patent for self-powered contact lenses containing a range of sensors. Controlled by deliberate blinks, the sensors would be able to record and store video and still images, and would have the capacity to transmit data via wireless technology. Sony has not yet developed a prototype, however, so it remains to be seen whether contact lenses with these capabilities could be worn comfortably.