Researchers build computer monitor into contact lens

[From IT World’s CoreIT blog; a related story can be found in New Scientist]

Researchers build computer monitor into contact lens

It’s only one pixel, but it gets the image and power wirelessly, and didn’t hurt the rabbit

By Kevin Fogarty
November 22, 2011

There have been a million science-fictioney stories, movies, photos and late-night caffeine-psychosis-induced hallucinations imagining how super-mobile, universally connected and unrealistically convenient computing will be in 10 years, or 20 or 50.

None of them quite got past [the] barrier posed by the one component of any computer system that can’t shrink in size to a nanoparticle or circuit tattoo or even pocket-sized personal-area-network base module without eliminating its usefulness completely: the display.

Everything else can be painted on, clipped to or embedded in clothes, accessories or skin. Making the monitor so small you hardly notice having it eliminates its usefulness altogether. What use is even the highest-definition image that you can’t see?

Virtual projection monitors that clip on glasses, or are embedded in the glass are good possibilities, of course.

There are plenty of “virtual reality” headsets that nauseate users or make them look like dorks while delivering poor image quality and shutting out images of the world outside the video game – which can be good or bad depending on whether not seeing would cause you to miss a plane or miss yet another episode of the Bachelor/Bachelorette/Wedding Dress/home makeover reality programming to which the significant other in your house is addicted.

“Cyberspace” virtual-reality/augmented reality connections directly to the vision centers of the brain are a staple of Cyberpunk and other novels about IT-saturated dystopian futures.

Most involve direct electronic connections within the brain, which is a great idea in novels, but gets less attractive after taking into account the fail rate of PC hardware, speed with which it becomes obsolete, and cost/benefit of having holes drilled in your skull and brain to make viewing a computer screen more convenient.

Smart contact lens: First, see your computer; next, see only what you want to

A group of U.S. and Finnish scientists have built into a contact lens the circuitry that would present the image from your computer monitor, converted into partial transparency like the heads-up-display jet fighter pilots (and, apparently, geekified skiiers) use.

The display holds a wireless antenna to collect the graphics signal from your personal-area-network computer and send back commands, another wireless system to collect power wirelessly in the same way wireless charging pads claim to be able to recharge cell phones and all the circuitry to make them all work together.

The circuits are embedded in a single transparent sapphire chip with a micro light-emitting diode to produce images perceived as much larger than they are because they’re so horrifyingly close to the eye itself.

So far the whole thing is so lab that it’s several stages of testing away from being poked into humans.

The team, led by the University of Washington’s Babak Praviz, published in the Institute of Physics’ Journal of Micromechanics and Microengineering (free registration required at an article describing tests of the device in the eye of a rabbit.

The rabbit survived with no ill effects, but did complain constantly about display lag causing its game performance to deteriorate and the quality of its entertainment media being jerky and out of focus.

Why would I want this?

The potential of high quality displays integrated into contact lenses or eyeglasses is huge.

At its simplest, the heads-up display in a wearable monitor would eliminate the need to constantly look down at a GPS and away from the oncoming traffic it inexplicably refuses to show, even when it’s trying to kill you both.

Augmented reality applications such as Layar for Android would be incomparably more effective if they could display street names, give you the name of acquaintances that slipped your mind just as you’re about to shake hands and other data-access tasks that would otherwise have to be done on a laptop or by standing at a party wearing evening clothes, staring at no one and typing with your thumbs.

Why it doesn’t work yet

There are two big problems with the contacts so far:

First, the wireless projector can power the lens from about a meter away if it’s not in an eye. When the contact lens is in the eye the power projector has to be within 2 cm. That means not only carrying the battery with you, but probably tying it around your head. At least, for these earliest versions.

The other problem is that the first version displays only one pixel.

I’m no expert on HD development and resolution, but I believe one pixel is significantly below the standards for most displays. ThinQ_ calculated the resolution is 150,000 times worse than an average smartphone display and 2.074 million times worse than a 1920×1080 HD monitor.

The experiment wasn’t to produce HD, though; it was to prove the concept of both wireless display and wireless power transmission to something so small.

In the next version of the contact-lens system the team will try to produce a multi-pixel display and, eventually, one with definition high enough that it would be worthwhile testing in humans.


One response to “Researchers build computer monitor into contact lens”

  1. Robbie Mueller

    i guess the question “how do you focus on a display that sticks on your iris?” would just spoil the fun, right?

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