Terminator-like contact lenses offer superhuman vision

Engineers at the University of Washington have created a biologically safe contact lens with an imprinted electronic circuit and lights that could lead to a variety of wicked cool visual aids to help vision-impaired people, holographic driving control panels and even new ways to surf the Web on the go.

Wearing contacts that could project images directly at the eye could let drivers or pilots could see a vehicle's or aircraft's speed or other important data directly through the device. Video-game companies could use the contact lenses to completely immerse players in a virtual world without restricting their range of motion. And for communications, people could surf the Internet on a midair virtual display screen that only they would be able to see, researchers said.

The prototype device contains an electric circuit as well as red light-emitting diodes for a display, though it does not yet light up, researchers said. The lenses were tested on rabbits for up to 20 minutes and the animals showed no adverse effects. Ideally, installing or removing the bionic eye would be as easy as popping a contact lens in or out, and once installed the wearer would barely know the gadget was there, researchers said.

The prototype contact lens does not correct the wearer's vision, but the technique could be used on a corrective lens, researchers said. And all the gadgetry won't obstruct a person's view.

Building the lenses was a challenge because materials that are safe for use in the body, such as the flexible organic materials used in contact lenses, are delicate. Manufacturing electrical circuits, however, involves inorganic materials, scorching temperatures and toxic chemicals, researchers said. Researchers said they built the circuits from layers of metal only a few nanometers thick, about one thousandth the width of a human hair, and constructed light-emitting diodes one third of a millimeter across. They then sprinkled the grayish powder of electrical components onto a sheet of flexible plastic. The shape of each tiny component dictates which piece it can attach to, a microfabrication technique known as self-assembly. Capillary forces - the same type of forces that make water move up a plant's roots, and that cause the edge of a glass of water to curve upward - pull the pieces into position, researchers stated.

Researchers were vague about when such contact lenses might be available for public use: A full-fledged display won't be available for a while, but a version that has a basic display with just a few pixels could be operational "fairly quickly," they said.

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