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AH Primetime: Five Smart Contact Lenses That Will Shape Vision

August 10, 2015 - Written By David Steele

The eye is a sophisticated mechanical machine with built-in feedback systems and a close connection and integration with the control system, the brain. It’s an amazing device… but this doesn’t mean it cannot be improved, or at least augmented: no eyeball yet comes with WiFi, Bluetooth or a dual core processor. However, there are projects out there designed to improve the eyeball through adding contact lenses. Whilst the technology is still very much at the early stages, here are five projects that can be used to improve how the mark one eyeball works.

The first hardware in development is something similar to that of Google Glass, but very much on steroids for the technology will be reduced in size and improved in ability. Innovega is working on the iOptik system, which is designed as a contact lense to project information effectively into the eye. The original technology used hard contact lenses but Innovega has redesigned the technology to work with soft lenses, which are more comfortable and suitable for the majority of people. The claim is that the lenses will cost only around 20% more than current disposable soft lenses, the technology is currently going through clinical trials and the business hopes to be going through FDA clinical trials shortly. The technology could be ready by late 2016.

The next technology is to incorporate heat sensitive vision into contact lenses. The University of Michigan have invented a lens that includes two thin graphene layers and a special sensor that “can see far into the infrared spectrum,” which also works at lower temperatures than other infrared-seeing technology. The team are hoping to condense the technology down into something that can be fitted into a contact lens and as such become another piece of wearable technology. It’s not yet clear how or if the technology can be controlled whilst being worn.

The next technological improvement we may see in our contact lenses is that of a contact lens that can improve the lives of those millions of people suffering from Age-related Macular Degeneration, or AMD, which causes vision loss in adults over fifty as the macular in the eye degenerates. EPFL and USCD are working on a telescopic contact lens just 1.17mm thick and is able to magnify ordinary vision by three times and the ability is turned on or off with a wink. The center of the lens works as normal but the outside acts as a telescope, which enhances how AMD suffers see the world.

X-Ray vision sounds like a technology to allow the wearer to see through solid objects. Unfortunately, this technology is currently beyond the foreseeable future, however there are technologies that can use wireless signals (such as WiFi) to track objects behind others. In reality, x-rays would not actually allow us to see through walls. However, certain wireless signals such as Wi-Fi have been shown to be capable of tracking motion behind solid objects. Special lenses will allow the wearer to effectively see through objects, soemwhat like wireframe graphics from 8-bit computers all those years ago. Lenses can be made to be more sensitive to certain wavelengths and can form the basis of smart homes whereby the house can monitor inhabitants’ location, breathing, heart and respiration rates. It’s already been used to try to steal from casinos as in 2013, Bruce Koloshi was caught trying to use contact lenses sensitive enough to see the invisible ink that’s marked on certain cards, which allowed him to see when these were being dealt.

The final use of advanced contact lenses is somewhat more down to earth as it takes advantage of how the eye can be used to quickly and efficiently absorb medicines. Dallas researches at the Baylor College of Medicine are working on a very thin lens, called the “Nanowafer,” designed to deliver a drug to the eye over a predetermined period of time. The Nanowafer could revolutionise how certain medication is delivered as it is accurate, waste-free and far less invasive than eye drops. Currently, the technology is heading for clinical trials in 2016, which means we are a few years away from seeing it used by doctors, but it’s coming. There are other contact lenses with medicine in mind; we know of the Novartis / Google joint project for lenses designed to monitor the wearer’s blood sugar levels. Although not quite an eye augmentation system, this technology could help improve the lives of millions of diabetes sufferers across the world.