Movie characters from the “Terminator” to the “Bionic Woman” use bionic eyes to zoom in on far-off scenes, have useful facts pop into their field of view, or create virtual crosshairs. Off the screen, virtual displays have been proposed for more practical purposes-visual aids to help vision-impaired people, holographic driving control panels and even as a way to surf the Web on the go.
Engineers at the University of Washington have for the first time used manufacturing techniques at microscopic scales to combine a flexible, biologically safe contact lens with an imprinted electronic circuit and lights.
“Looking through a completed lens, you would see what the display is generating superimposed on the world outside,” says Babak Parviz, a UW assistant professor of electrical engineering. “This is a very small step toward that goal, but I think it’s extremely promising.” The results were recently presented at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ international conference on Micro Electro Mechanical Systems by Harvey Ho, a former graduate student of Parviz’s now working at Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore, Calif.
There are many possible uses for virtual displays. Drivers or pilots could see a vehicle’s speed projected onto the windshield. Video-game companies could use the contact lenses to completely immerse players in a virtual world without restricting their range of motion. And for communications, people on the go could surf the Internet on a midair virtual display screen that only they would be able to see.“People may find all sorts of applications for it that we have not thought about. Our goal is to demonstrate the basic technology and make sure it works and that it’s safe,” states Parviz, who heads a multi-disciplinary UW group that is developing electronics for contact lenses.
Ideally, installing or removing the bionic eye would be as easy as popping a contact lens in or out, and once installed the wearer would barely know the gadget was there, Parviz explains.
The prototype contact lens does not correct the wearer’s vision, but the technique could be used on a corrective lens, Parviz says. And all the gadgetry won’t obstruct a person’s view.“There is a large area outside of the transparent part of the eye that we can use for placing instrumentation,” Parviz states. Future improvements will add wireless communication to and from the lens. The researchers hope to power the whole system using a combination of radio-frequency power and solar cells placed on the lens.