Space & Innovation

Futuristic Contact Lenses Come Into Focus: Photos

A closer look at all the tech being eyed for contact lenses.

Researchers around the world have big plans for packing new capabilities into tiny contact lenses. Powerful tech has been getting smaller and more flexible in recent years, opening up wild possibilities. Along the way, these teams will have to overcome significant challenges involving power, storage, and components that work with thin, soft materials. Undaunted, experts across disciplines are forging ahead with futuristic visions for contacts that can zoom in, see in the dark, and even record video. Here’s a glimpse at what’s in store.

A contact lens prototype developed at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland contains a super-thin reflective telescope to magnify the view up to 2.8 times. Designed for people with low vision or age-related macular degeneration, the breathable lenses unveiled in 2015 work with electronic glasses that allow the wearer to have on-demand magnification controlled by winking.

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Researcher and contact lens wearer Jelle de Smet and his colleagues at the University of Ghent came out with a prototype for text-receiving contact lenses in 2012. Their lens incorporated a curved liquid crystal display that superimposed simplistic patterns like a dollar sign over the eye. While the wearer might not see the message, the contacts could provide adaptable sun protection.

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Contact lenses seem like the perfect place for unobtrusive health monitors. In 2014, Google X developed prototype lenses for people with diabetes that generated rapid glucose level readings from tears. The following year Google was awarded a patent for solar-powered contacts smart enough to detect biological data, potential allergens, and verify identity through retinal analysis.

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With the rise of transparent augmented reality displays for vehicles, smart phones, and motorcycle helmets, a Bellevue, Wash., tech company called Innovega pictured similar tech for contact lenses. In 2014, the company debuted a prototype of their iOptik contacts that pair with special sunglasses to create a glanceable display.

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Inspired by a light-gathering fish retina, University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers developed a tiny artificial eye in 2016 that contains thousands of aluminum-covered light collectors. The collectors automatically focus in milliseconds as light conditions change. The technology takes us one step closer to self-correcting contact lenses and would reduce the need for laser eye surgery, bifocals or even trifocals.

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Night vision usually requires a bulky headset to keep equipment cool so it can detect heat, but University of Michigan researchers came out with a light detector in 2014 that could sense the full infrared spectrum at room temperature. Their graphene-based design was thin enough to be stacked on a contact lens. Then, in 2015, a team from MIT leveraged graphene to make a thermal sensor just one atom thick.

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Sony was awarded a patent in April 2016 for an incredibly futuristic contact lens. Although a prototype hadn’t come out yet, the patent detailed a self-powered contact lens full of sensors controlled by intentional blinks to record and store still or moving images. The lens would also transmit captured photos or video wirelessly.

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