2012-02-08

Co.Exist

The Lens Of The Future Sees Much More Than What's In Front Of You

Though the original applications are for soldiers in battle, these augmented reality contact lenses could change medicine, education, and countless other fields.

Augmented reality is a term for technologies that soup up our view of the real world with an overlay of virtual information. Think Terminator vision.

So far, augmented reality has been largely limited to marketing gimmicks and iPhone apps. But a Washington-based company called Innovega is working with the Department of Defense on a project that could make it much more practical.

One of the stumbling blocks in augmented reality has been figuring out how to present the virtual information. It’s not hard to project images onto the lenses of a pair of glasses. But it is very hard to focus on images that are an inch from your eyeballs.

Innovega is trying to solve that problem with special contact lenses that allow the wearer to focus simultaneously on things that are very close and far away. Their hope is that these contact lenses make it possible for people to see images in small digital displays—glasses, basically—while still being able to interact normally with the outside world.

Innovega is working on this project with DARPA, the Department of Defense’s cutting-edge technology research agency, so it should be no surprise that there are military applications on the horizon if the technology works. A small digital display like this could make it possible for soldiers to see in night vision or infrared, magnify images, or pull up maps, all without bulky equipment. Innovega, for its part, is emphasizing the recreational possibilities, such as better immersive 3-D movies and games.

But war and entertainment are the obvious—and potentially less interesting—applications. Innovega says the system could help people suffering from macular degeneration. And one could imagine this kind of lightweight augmented reality being very useful in medicine and education. Imagine a surgeon who can have access to vital stats without taking her eyes away from an operation, or a classroom of the future where stats and animations could appear in front of your eyes at a moment’s notice.

When, exactly, can we expect this technology? A consumer version, the company says, won’t be available until late 2014 at the earliest. Until then, try not to be too upset with the normal reality of your current contacts.

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