Dec 7, 2009

The future before your eyes

IMAGINE a world where your contact lenses double as a personal computer display, superimposing information in front of you.

That virtual-reality dream, a staple of sci-fi movies, is a step closer thanks to the work of Seattle scientists who have been developing a prototype to generate images inside a contact lens. The information would appear about 50 centimetres from the user's eye.

The technology is some years off, but a researcher, Babak Parviz, and his colleagues at the University of Washington last week unveiled a prototype at a Beijing biomedical conference. ''My group works on building nano-scale electronic, optical, and biomedical devices,'' Professor Parviz said. ''We also work on integrating these devices into unconventional substrates - for example glass, plastic, paper. Since I put contact lenses on pretty much every morning, I guess it was just a matter of time putting the two together and wondering what we can do if we start putting these … tiny devices on a contact lens.''

Professor Parviz and his team have successfully embedded the tiny circuitry for an LED display into a contact lens and tested it by fitting it to a rabbit to show it would not damage the eye, although the lens was not powered up in the test.

With many technical problems still to solve, it is hard to predict when the technology may be commercially available. ''Simpler displays with only limited resolution could be used in gaming or giving a person some information, for example walking directions to go somewhere,'' Professor Parviz said.

''As the display improves, you might be able to project text and read email or put captions on the real world. A high-resolution display will make a fully immersive experience possible and will generate true augmented reality.''

''It's very intriguing,'' said Associate Professor Francois Ladouceur, the head of photonics in the School of Electrical Engineering at the University of NSW.

His research is into the next generation of computer displays: very thin, flexible screens using polymer (plastic) electronics. ''The industry is looking for the next generation of displays,'' he said.

''Potentially if you could embed in the lens some of these plastic semiconductors you could build electronics right into it. Providing energy [to power the circuit] would be difficult, but it's do-able.''

Of his own work on conformal (flexible) and cheap computer displays, he said: ''The dream - or nightmare, depending on how you look at it - is every cereal box would be animated as you walk down the supermarket aisle, if you let your imagination run.''

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