What would you do if we told you that one day soon you may be able to see in the dark? Or that you'll have the ability to 'zoom' in on objects to make them appear larger just by looking at them? You'd probably laugh and tell us that is the stuff of superheroes! However, believe it or not, a number of companies have already announced they're researching smart contact lens technology that could accelerate vision beyond natural human capabilities.
How do smart contact lenses work?
You can wear basic smart contact lenses like a normal contact lens; they don't require surgery and can be inserted or removed by the user. They sit on the eyeball and contain micro versions of existing technology.
The advanced smart lens involves a surgical replacement of your existing lens with an electronic one. Fluid is injected into the eye, fusing with the lens capsule as it solidifies. This has the same technological features but is more robust and permanent. The artificial lens takes over the job of focusing light on the retina, improving vision in a flexible way. However, they're likely to be just as comfortable as normal lenses. Smart lenses are designed to harvest energy. The two methods being discussed are solar power sensors, to convert light to electrical power, and piezoelectric sensors, to convert the mechanical eye movement of blinking into electrical power.
The smart contact lenses that reach market are likely to contain micro-versions of the following technologies:
- Auto-focusing lens
- Data Storage
- Task-specific sensors
Which companies are working on smart contact lenses?
There's a race in the business world to develop wearable tech and the smart contact lens market is no exception. In fact, the smart contact lens market is expected to see a compound annual growth rate of 10.4% by 2023. America is the largest player globally, with its increasing demand for eye care solutions and the adoption of wearable medical devices. The company Verily, an Alphabet subsidiary, has been the most aggressive in bringing electronics to contact lenses.
A number of other companies have also announced that they are researching applications for smart contact lenses including:
- Columbia University Medical Centre
- University of Michigan
- U.S. Department of Defense
- Swiss Federated Institute of Technology in Lausanne
Smart contact lenses revolutionise healthcare
Today there are roughly 253 million people around the world living with some form of visual impairment, with the five most common conditions being: cataracts, diabetic retinopathy, macular degeneration, glaucoma and retinal detachment. Smart contact lens applications may be able to treat common eye conditions better than any conventional lens ever has.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin, for example, have invented a smart lens to treat farsightedness. Mimicking the uniquely-shaped retina of the elephant nose fish, they are designing a contact lens which autofocuses within milliseconds. And, thanks to US military funding, scientists at the University of Michigan are building a contact lens that gives soldiers the ability to see in the dark using thermal imaging. The technology uses a single layer of carbon atoms, called graphene, to pick up the full spectrum of light, including ultraviolet.
Also, the Swiss Federated institute of Technology in Lausanne has developed telescopic contact lenses that let the user switch between normal and magnified vision so that they can zoom in on certain objects.
Smart contact lenses don't just stop at sharpening vision, they are being designed to help with a number of other medical conditions. They can carry a wireless chip and miniaturized sensor for monitoring physiological parameters such as the glucose levels in the tears of a diabetic patient or intraocular pressure in glaucoma patients.
Photography and augmented reality
As a vision-based technology, smart contact lenses are an obvious way to explore virtual and augmented reality, and camera technologies. Samsung is working on a way to project visual information directly into the retina of the eye so that the field of vision is altered. It functions like a tiny version of Google Glass and would create a mixed reality experience.
Sony has applied for a patent for a smart contact lens which can convert eye movement into electrical power, which you control through blinking your eyes. The lens can actually store images or video once recorded.
A smart future
Aside from casual consumers and technology enthusiasts, there are some very practical real-world applications for this smart contact lens technology; they could be used to replace body-cams so that police and security officers are safer, they can enhance military operations, they can give surgeons better vision and immediate feedback on vital signs and they can give patients with long-term illnesses a way to monitor symptoms.
We're excited to hear about further innovations and will make sure we keep you updated, after all, who isn't excited about a future of perfect vision?