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About this Article
Written by: Hyeong An
Written on: July 29th, 2013
Tags: electrical engineering, computer science, communication, entertainment, food & drink, health & medicine, industrial engineering, lifestyle, sports & recreation, transportation
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About the Author
this article was created by Hyeong L. An. Hyeong was a senior majoring in Electrical Engineering at USC. He is very interested in augmented reality technology.
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Volume XVII Issue I > Wearable Contact-Lens Display: The Next Generation of Wearable Technology
Engineers are on the brink of major breakthroughs in creating contact lenses that offer wearers all of the functionality of a computer or smartphone. Earlier iterations of this technology have been confined to clunky glasses and goggles. However, new composite materials that combine graphene and silver nanowires are making it possible to create a display that is flexible, transparent, conductive, and tiny enough to fit on the human cornea.

Introduction

A computer display that fits right over your eyeball may sound like the stuff of science fiction, but this technology already exists, and it is poised to become widely available to the public in the not-too-distant future. Engineers around the world are collaborating to develop vision-augmenting, wearable soft contact lenses that can connect to a range of electronic devices such as computers and smartphones. These lenses are sure to have applications in everyday life and will offer the capacity to change our experiences in navigation and travel; entertainment and media; medicine, health and fitness; social networking; and commerce.
Over the past few years, teams of engineers around the world have been trying to build contact lenses that function as wearable displays. While American and European militaries have been honing Head-Up Display (HUD) technologies for use in aviation since the 1960s, and the U.S. military already employs wearable displays called wearable glass, the innovation to build augmented reality into a contact lens is only a few years old [3]. Currently, wearable glass, such as Google Glass, consists of a lightweight pair of glasses with a side-mounted processor and ‘pico-projector.​”[3] This device can be linked to wi-fi or a mobile device by Bluetooth. When a user is wearing the glasses, a small virtual screen appears in the upper right corner of the person’s field of vision [3].
The wearable lens technology that builds on the advancements made in HUDs and wearable glass to deliver an immersive visual experience that does not require “clunky optics or crazy set-up.”[1] Instead of using helmets, goggles, or glasses, this technology is projected onto a miniscule full-color display that is small enough to fit on a contact lens. The digital images can enhance vision with “virtual and augmented reality images” while not interfering with normal vision in any way [1].
The History of HUDs
The history of augmented vision technologies dates back several decades. The Head-Up Displays of the mid-1970s, comprised of a display unit, a combiner, and a computer, were created to enable pilots to operate aircraft with increased accuracy by placing critical information within their normal field of vision [4]. By relieving pilots of the need to look down at panels of instruments, HUDs increased both precision and safety, even under low-visibility conditions [4]. The systems were so effective that they have been incorporated into commercial aircraft as well. Nonetheless, HUDs and wearable glass have presented a variety of persistent engineering challenges, from the presence of distracting reflections to the bulky inconvenience of the headgear. Wearable lenses overcome such limitations.
What We Can Learn From Wearable Glass
Innovations in wearable glass have made this technology considerably more lightweight and comfortable. However, wearable glass is still bulkier and more cumbersome than wearable lenses, which, like other contact lenses, rest directly on the user’s cornea [1]. Currently, there are a variety of functional features of wearable glass for which engineers are developing wearable lens analogs. Today, wearable glass includes hardware such as touch buttons and cameras as well as wireless functionality and communication with other devices [5] [6]. Wearable contact lenses will experience great leaps in usability if engineers can incorporate hardware, wireless, and communication capabilities (Fig. 1).
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Figure 1: Concept components of the contact lens display.
The concept components of a wearable lens that may become a viable reality in the near future are depicted in Fig. 1. A semi-transparent display and micro lens array rests directly over the center of the user’s cornea. A display control circuit determines the content of the display. For functions that require biometric information from the user, a biosensor module can gather data on metrics including heart rate, blood pressure, and eye pressure. The biometric data may then be interpreted and displayed by the sensor readout and control circuit. To enable wireless and communication capabilities, the lens will need to be equipped with a telecommunication and power reception antenna. The concept sketch in Fig. 1 shows an example of a solar powered wearable lens. Accordingly, both a solar cell module to collect solar energy as well as an energy storage module are built into the lens. Finally, the radio and power conversion circuit and the energy interconnects operate as translators between the input signals and the other components of the device.