Hopeful spies rejoice. Thanks to a team at the University of California, San Diego, a robotic contact lens is now a reality. By harnessing the eye’s natural electrical potential, the device is able to zoom in and out on command when a user blinks.
The team behind the project hopes it will serve as a basis for visual protheses that allow people with disabilities to control other robots. However, the technology may also serve as a springboard for more complex devices like smart eyewear, Iron Man-esque displays, and even tiny binoculars.
Blink Twice to Zoom
The team who developed the robotic contact is calling it a “biomimetic soft lens.” Each lens features an array of five electrodes spread evenly across its surface. These act as muscles to help expand and retract the lens, thereby changing the focal length, after receiving an electrical signal.
As it turns out, the electrical potential of the human eyeball is different when the eye is closed than when it is open. The lens uses this tiny change to make the whole thing work. When the eye closes, the lens receives an electrical stimulus, causing an elastomer between the electrodes to expand.
Once activated, the soft lens is able to increase focal length by up to 32 percent. The lens is able to respond very rapidly to electrical changes. This allows it to stay in sync with the eyeball and change focus almost instantly.
To avoid headaches (literally), the team programmed the lens to zoom in following a double blink—two blinks in rapid succession. Two more causes the lens to zoom out.
While contact lenses that can zoom in the blink of an eye are awesome, they aren’t the final destination. For one, the prototype isn’t available to consumers.
Considering it is actually worn on the eye rather than in front of it like glasses, the lens may see a lot of regulative red tape before hitting shelves. Even that depends on whether the team is actually ready to sell it at all.
However, it seems that the team is more focused on future applications than selling their current device. It believes the innovation of the zoomable lens can be a key tool in visual prostheses. Since the lens works whether or not a person can see, its concept could help create a prosthetic eye capable of multi-focal sight.
Meanwhile, the team also envisions similar lenses serving as controllers for visually operated robotics. The way the lens works might actually allow this to happen. Since the eye generates different electric signals with every directional movement, users could theoretically have up, down, left, right, blink, and double blink options to work with.
Ultimately, this zooming contact lens is a really neat device. It goes to show that sometimes sci-fi depictions aren’t that far away from reality.