Space & Innovation

'Fish-Eye' Contact Lens Auto-Focuses

A self-correcting contact lens could eliminate the need for bifocals, trifocals or laser corrective surgery.

Imagine wearing a pair of contact lenses that could auto-focus on objects both far and near, giving you a new pair of eyes that don't wear out with age. That goal -- inspired by the light-gathering abilities of the retina of the elephant nose fish -- took a step closer with a new study published today.

Authors say the research could help people with an eyesight condition called presbyopia, a stiffening of the eye's lens that makes it difficult to focus on close objects. The condition affects 1 billion people worldwide.

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Hongrui Jiang, engineering professor at the University of Wisconsin, said a self-correcting contact lens could eliminate the need for bifocals, trifocals or laser corrective surgery.

"This would be a nice way to restore youthful eyesight for the elderly," said Jiang, who published the study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Today's report focuses on a new design for tiny sensors that can acquire images under low-light conditions, just like the muddy African waters where the elephant nose fish swims.

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The fish's retina has a series of deep cup-like structures with reflective sidewalls, helping to gather and intensify the wavelengths of light the fish uses to see. Engineers made a tiny device with thousands of light collectors coated with aluminum that reflects incoming light into the sidewalls.

Jiang says there are two ways that auto-focus cameras work. One uses a small infrared beam to determine an object to focus on, the second takes the image and analyzes the sharpness of the image borders, which can tell the operator whether it's in or out of focus.

"We are taking that approach," Jiang said. "The key is you have to integrate an imager into the lens."

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Teams at Google are building contact lenses that can give the wearer information about certain medical conditions, such as ocular pressure that can signal the presence of cataracts. Another group at Microsoft is building a contact lens that can sense blood glucose and display the information to the wearer.

Getting a working prototype of a working auto-focus lens, however, is still five to 10 years away, according to Jiang.

"It's a very challenging project," Jiang said. "You need to get tunable lenses, a power supply to drive the lens and the electronics, and everything needs to be flexible."

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Jiang says the optimal power supply is a tiny embedded solar cell that both collects and stores energy.

John A. Rogers, professor of materials science and chemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says there remain many hurdles to overcome in order to build a wearable auto-focus contact lens, most of which center around the geometry, mechanics and materials selection.

"You want to make sure the materials are bio-compatible," Rogers said, explaining that copper wouldn't work as a electric conductor. "It's probably not something you want in contact with your eye."

Currently, most consumer electronics are printed on rigid surfaces, while an electronic wearable devices such as a contact lens would have a different form of integrating the materials into the lens. "You can imagine lots of challenges," Rogers said. "But (an auto-focus contact lens) is an exciting direction in the broader field of bio-integrated electronics."

The elephant nose fish has inspired work on a new kind of contact lens.

Animals got it going on. They fly better than humans, swim better, run faster, and hop higher. So it's no surprise that scientists are building robots modeled after creatures from the animal kingdom. Here are 10 of our favorites. Meet Spot, a four-legged robotic dog that can run over terrain, climb stairs and can handle a kick to the ribs without a flinch. Google-owned Boston Dynamics’ robot uses an electrical/hydraulic system and is designed for both indoor and outdoor operation.

BionicKangaroo is a robot developed by automation company Festo to technologically reproduce the unique way that a kangaroo moves. Just like a kangaroo, the robot recovers energy when jumping, stores it and efficiently uses it for the next jump.

A turtle-shaped robot named Beachbot, created by Disney Research labs, uses a retractable rake and onboard sensors to etch elaborate lines and designs in the sand.

The Great Elephant robot, which makes the French city of Nantes its home, is made from 45 tons of reclaimed wood and steel. The mechanical elephant can carry up to 49 passengers at a time on a 45-minute walk.

The Atrias robot is modeled after birds, which are arguably the fastest and most agile two-legged runners in the world. The robot, developed by researchers at the Oregon State University’s Dynamic Robotics Laboratory, has impeccable balance and can withstand kicks, punches and even a barrage of dodge balls.

The ACM-R5H robot, developed by Japan-based HiBot, is intended for inspection and search operations in underwater environments. In the front unit, a wireless camera is mounted to capture images.

German robotics company Festo is known for its animal-inspired robots. One of their latest creations is BionicAnt, a colony of small robots that work together to accomplish tasks, similar to how real insect societies work together toward a common goal.

The Navy recently deployed a robotic shark called the GhostSwimmer unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV), which is five feet long and 100 pounds. It is based on biomimetic design principles and can be used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, as well as hull inspections of friendly ships.

Boston Dynamics’ Cheetah robot is capable of running faster than any human, with speeds reaching 28.3 mph. It also has an articulated back that flexes back and forth on each step, mimicking the movement of a cheetah.

The T8, by Robugtix, is made with high-resolution 3D-printed parts, and is modeled after the movements of a spider. It has 26 different motors, with three in each leg and two in the abdomen.