Wink-controlled, zoomable contact lenses
Author Nicholas Derenzo Illustration Jameson Simpson
It’s not every day a new invention is born that appeals equally to military snipers and little old ladies. But that’s precisely the case with optics specialist Eric Tremblay’s telescopic, zoomable contact lenses, which incorporate tiny mirrors to create primitive telescopes worn right on the surface of the eye. When paired with smart glasses, these lenses could dramatically improve the vision of patients suffering from age-related macular degeneration—the leading cause of vision loss and blindness in Americans over 65. Researchers from UC San Diego and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, in Lausanne, first unveiled the project in 2013, and this past February they debuted a sleeker, more wearable version at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Jose, California. The U.S. Defense Department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has provided funding for the project, and it isn’t difficult to see why they’d be excited: It’s not just your grandmother who could benefit from being turned into a bionic, hawk-eyed superhero. Here’s how the lenses work.
1. At about 1.5 mm thick and 8 mm in diameter, the lenses are only slightly bigger and more rigid than normal soft contact lenses. They are equipped with a tiny ring of aluminum mirrors embedded in the surface around the center of the eye, which bounces and refocuses beams of light, employing the same basic functionality as binoculars or telescopes.
2. The lenses are paired with electronic smart glasses made out of liquid crystal—the same material found in LCD screens—that are used to change the polarization of incoming light. When the lenses are turned off, light enters through the clear center, allowing for normal vision. When they’re turned on, the crystals redirect the beam toward the mirrors, allowing for 2.8 times magnification of the image being viewed.
3. In order to make the experience hands-free, the glasses employ a sensor in the frames that—in a particularly whimsical twist—is able to read winks. Smart enough to know the difference between involuntary blinks and deliberate winks, the glasses turn on when the user winks with the right eye and off when the user winks with the left eye. Just remember: Excessive flirting will gum up the works.