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Contact-Lens Image Display Is A Step Closer

November 30, 2011
Written by: , Filed in: Diagnostic Imaging
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How cool would it be to have real-time images streaming across your field of vision? It could be practical in daily life (navigation information, e-mails), commercially profitable (“hey, loyal Starbucks customer, stop in for a Frappuccino just 10 steps ahead on your left”) or simply fun (video game displays). But it’s also easy to imagine medical uses.

Implanted body sensors could monitor and display glucose or insulin levels. Reminders could signal that it’s time to take medications or head to a doctor’s appointment. Images of scans could appear right before a radiologist’s eyes, literally.

Researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle and Aalto University in Helsinki and Espoo, Finland, have created a working prototype. OK, it contains only a single pixel and has been fitted only on rabbits. But the contact lens did wirelessly pick up external power and use it to light a single blue LED. And the rabbits showed no signs of adverse side effects.

Babak Parviz, PhD, a University of Washington associate professor of electrical engineering and one of the researchers, summed up the breakthrough:

This is the first time we have been able to wirelessly power and control the display in a live eye.

Dr. Parviz was quoted in a university news release.

One problem with scaling up to actual images is that the eye can’t focus on anything that close. The researchers addressed that problem by incorporating tiny Fresnel lenses (originally developed for 19th-century lighthouses but greatly miniaturized since then) into the device to focus the projected image onto the retina.

For details, see the study published this month in the Journal of Micromechanics and Microengineering.

In a wild understatement, the study notes, “Significant improvements are necessary to produce fully functional, remotely powered, high-resolution displays.” Problems included the fact that when the contact lens was in the eye, it wouldn’t work if it was more than a centimeter from the wireless power source.

However, scientists, engineers, and Moore’s Law being what they are, we’ll probably be using contact lenses to watch movies—and view imaging scans—a lot sooner than most of us think.

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