22 November 2011

Bionic lenses, Terminators and rabbits

A Terminator style bionic contact lens has been developed by researchers in a bid to enable real time information to be streamed across a user's field of vision. It's the stuff of sci-fi fantasy. Or at least it will be. One day.

While the media is having a field day over the prospect of hands free Terminator style data flashing across our eyes, the concept is … well, pretty well still a concept at this stage.

So far, scientists at the University of Washington and Aalto University in Finland have developed a prototype contact lens that contains a single pixel as a 'proof of concept'. To create the device, a tiny led with sapphire was embedded into the centre of a plastic contact lens, along with an antenna around the circumference of the lens. This was connected with a circuit to the led and, by using remote rf transmission, the pixel could then be controlled. Because the human eye is unable to focus on anything close to its surface, an additional lens was added that focused light and used it to project the image of the led directly onto the retina.

The next stage was to test the safety of the lenses, so the researchers fitted them onto the eyes of rabbits - presumably short-sighted ones that could read and understand the meaning of 'LOL' (lots of lettuce). No thermal burning or any other negative effects were recorded, although the fluffy bunnies seemed to tolerate the lenses for only short periods of time. Cigarette cravings can have that effect, after all.

Following the buns 'n' burner test, the contact lens was deemed safe to use on humans. Nevertheless, significant improvements are still required to enable fully functional, remotely powered, high resolution displays. Co-author of the study, Professor Babak Praviz, said: "We need to improve the antenna design and the associated matching network and optimise 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."

To do that, lenses with multiple pixels will need to be produced. And that could take time. But it will enable texts and short email messages to be sent - such as, 'Would you like a carrot?' and 'Watch out for that fox.'

Further down the line, the technology has the potential to be used to overlay computer generated visual information in gaming, medical and navigation applications. Exciting times. However, you do get the feeling that if - and when - this technology is unleashed on an eager public (and not so keen bunnies), that it will effectively eliminate the need to get out of your bed ever again. Or indeed your hutch.

Chris Shaw

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