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Future Contact Lenses Can Put Pixels on Our Eyeballs

If you've ever become frustrated by the failure of the heads up display (HUD) staple of modern video games to actually exist, your angst may soon be at an end. A joint research project between the University of Washington and Finland's Aalto University has resulted in the creation of a prototype that allows the projection of digital images onto a contact lens.

Consisting of a 500 X 500 um2 silicon harvester and radio integrated circuit (plus an antenna), it contains a a custom-designed micro-light emitting diode with Peak emission of 475 nm, placed on a 750 x 750 um2 transparent (synthetic) sapphire chip. The whole thing is integrated onto a standard contact lens. An alternate version with micro-Fresnel lenses (Fresnel lenses, incidentally, were invented for use in lighthouses) was also developed, and both versions have been tested on live, anesthetized rabbits with no apparent ill-effects.

At present, the device can only display 1 pixel of data. Not enough for the consumer to scroll through their personal inventory, set a map destination or select a mission, but a staggering development nonetheless.

"A display with a single controllable pixel could be used in gaming, training, or giving warnings to the hearing impaired," the researchers say. "We also believe it is possible to develop systems with better resolution, color, range and computing power. Displays with a handful of pixels could be used to provide directional information, and displays with hundreds of pixels used to read short emails or text messages." Which is to say, within our lifetimes we may see the elimination of devices as cumbersome as our tiny smartphones in favor of HUD visible only to the contact lens-wearer. Which means, of course, that High School message-passing will become much harder to police.

Lest we get too excited, 'full color, stand-alone contact lens displays' are still years away, and this device is more meant to prove the technology is possible, rather than fast-track the transition to fully augmented reality. More importantly, the power source, though wireless, has very limited range. Outside the body it can draw a charge from a source around 1 meter away. Implanted, that distance declines to an all-but-useless 2 centimeter range. Not very practical, as wireless power goes, but on the bright side, that working biofuel battery we learned about back in October suddenly has exciting real-world applications.

The abstract is currently available on the Journal of Micromechanis and Microengineering. A video explaining part of the technology behind this development is available below.