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Engineers have created an LED display you can wear like a contact lens

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Thanks to the advent of smart phone technologies, many of us already carry the internet with us everywhere we go. But now, scientists have created the world's first wirelessly powered, computerized contact lens with an integrated LED display. That's right — the same access to information afforded us by the technology in our pockets could soon come to us via devices that rest directly on our corneas.

The new, functional contact lens comes to us via the lab of Babak Amir Parviz, an electrical engineer at the University of Washington. Parviz teamed up with UW ophthalmologist Tueng Shen, and a group of Finnish researchers led by optoelectronics professor Markku Sopanen, to create the novel display technology, which is currently capable of lighting up a single blue pixel in response to a wireless signal.


To create the computerized contact, the engineers embedded a circular antenna along the rim of the lens, and coupled it with a tiny LED via an integrated circuit. Using remote radio frequency transmission, the researchers can control the activity of the single pixel, which is situated at the center of the lens.


The top image featured here shows the three main components embedded in the lens. The researchers have already tested the device's safety on live rabbits, also pictured here. Their results indicate that the animals suffered no abrasions from the plastic or burning from the lens' LED or wireless circuitry. Having said that, there are a number of obstacles that need to be overcome before you'll be able to stream Netflix straight to your eyeballs, or google your date while engaging them in dinner conversation.

For one thing, the lens in its present design is made from a hard plastic that limits airflow to the eye, which would prevent you from wearing the lens for more than a few minutes at a time. The other major hurdle is accounting for your eye's minimum focal distance — i.e. the challenge of making any pixels that appear on the contact lens clearly visible to your eye. (The researchers claim to have overcome this obstacle with a lens comprising extremely thin "micro-Fresnel" lenses that can focus the light from the LED over an incredibly small distance. This special design would, in theory, allow your retina to pick up meaningful information from the lens and any information it might display on your personal heads-up display of the future.)

And while you certainly can't view much more than a message in morse code via a single-pixel interface, Parviz and his colleagues claim to already be moving toward a multipixel contact-lens display that could one day allow you to check the relationship status of someone across the bar from you organize your inbox or check your missed calls — all from a tiny display resting neatly on your eyeball.

"If we can make them as comfortable as normal contact lenses, you don't feel you're wearing them," Parviz says. He continues:

If we can make very small devices of various sorts, if we have the ability to put them into different materials, what can I do with this contact lens that I stare at every morning? In a sense, it's the ultimate electronic gear that is totally unnoticeable.


The researchers describe their computerized contact lens in the latest issue of the Journal of Micromechanics and Microengineering (no subscription required).
[Spotted on Discovery News]
Top image via Shutterstock; Image of lens and rabbit eye by Parviz et al. via