Virtual Reality Contact Lenses Could Be Available by 2014

virtual reality contacts
(Image credit: Innovega)

Contact lenses that help enhance normal vision with megapixel 3D panoramic images are being designed by scientists using military funding.

For those who do not want to rely on contact lenses, future versions could involve lenses directly implanted within the eye, researchers added.

Over the decades, the video displays that everyone from fighter pilots to the general public use have grown increasingly complex. One possibility for advanced displays is a virtual reality (VR) system that replaces our view of the real world with computer-generated vistas. Another idea consists of augmented reality (AR) displays that overlay computer-generated images over real-world environments. However, these often require bulky apparatus such as oversized helmets.

"Unless the display industry can deliver transparent, high-performance and compact eyewear, developers of augmented reality and other compelling media applications will simply fail to create the excitement that consumers crave and the functionality that professional users absolutely need," said Steve Willey, chief executive officer of Bellevue, Wash.-based company Innovega.

Now Innovega researchers funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Science Foundation are developing novel contact lenses that can help view tiny full-color megapixel displays.

 "Over the past months, we have demonstrated contact lens-enabled eyewear for mobile devices, including smartphones, portable game devices and media players that deliver panoramic, high-resolution experiences for entertainment and planned augmented reality applications," Willey said.

The new system consists of advanced contact lenses working in conjunction with lightweight eyewear. Normally, the human eye is limited in its ability to focus on objects placed very near it. The contact lenses contain optics that focus images displayed on the eyewear onto the light-sensing retina in the back of the eye, allowing the wearer to see them properly.

Conventional mobile device screens are often too small to read comfortably "and certainly too small to enjoy," Willey said. In contrast, Innovega's contact lenses could effectively generate displays with a screen size "equivalent to a 240-inch television, viewed at a distance of 10 feet."

Moreover, by projecting slightly different pictures to each eye, the display can generate the illusion of 3D. "You get full 3D, full HD, fully panoramic images," Willey said.

Although some might balk at using contact lenses, "100 million people already do, including 20 percent of the key target group of 18- to 34-year-olds, those involved in gaming and using smartphones," Willey told InnovationNewsDaily. "So we already have a built-in market. We envision that people who pick up their lenses every six months or so might switch to these lenses, picking them up from the same vendor they already do."

Potential consumer applications include immersive video, 3D gaming, mobile device interfaces and augmented reality applications. When it comes to potential military applications, "this could be the ultimate computer interface for the troops, something that's fully transparent and fully hands-free," Willey said.

"Think of individuals who pilot drones, the ones that fly or the ones for bomb disposal," Willey added. "Or think of medics, who can get information very quickly from the soldier and from headquarters and relay it back. Or think of soldiers who need a display who have a gun in their hands and can't have something obstructing their vision for safety and mobility issues, but need access to incredibly rich data such as maps that require full color and detail."

Potential medical applications include helping those with vision problems, including macular degeneration. "About 10 million people in the U.S. have macular degeneration, where the retina in their eyes is less able to discern detail," Willey said. One can imagine including a tiny camera on the bridge of the nose of the eyewear to allow wearers to zoom in on text on a screen or on a soup can, he explained.

Scientists at the University of Washington have conducted research into contact lenses that have displays within them. "However, all we saw reported there was maybe one or two pixels — they had LEDs encapsulated inside a lens, and somehow got power to it for a very short period of time," Willey said. "But they would have to deal with batteries and heating, and we already have megapixel displays. I think that research is more to develop an indicator rather than a display — maybe to give an idea of blood sugar level, for instance."

Innovega plans to deliver prototype devices over the course of 2012 and 2013. "In 2012, we're also aiming to get FDA approval for the contact lenses," Willey said. In 2014, Innovega plans to begin low-volume production for the defense community and possibly those with vision problems. The company also aims for a commercial launch of their product in 2014 or 2015, depending on whether deals can be reached with commercial partners such as gaming companies.

In addition to contact lenses, Innovega's patents also cover lenses implanted within the eye. "There are 900,000 cataract operations a year that replace some portion of the lens," Willey said. "You can imagine giving them a lens that not only helps with real-world vision, but also virtual reality, or access to the Internet."

Also, when it comes to the military, "special operations might really like the features involved with our system, but the last thing they want to worry about are contact lenses behind enemy lines," Willey said. "You might think of hardwiring these in to have them permanently."

Innovega exhibited its work Jan. 8 at the annual International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

This story was provided by InnovationNewsDaily, a sister site to LiveScience.

Charles Q. Choi
Live Science Contributor
Charles Q. Choi is a contributing writer for Live Science and He covers all things human origins and astronomy as well as physics, animals and general science topics. Charles has a Master of Arts degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia, School of Journalism and a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of South Florida. Charles has visited every continent on Earth, drinking rancid yak butter tea in Lhasa, snorkeling with sea lions in the Galapagos and even climbing an iceberg in Antarctica.