We see a lot of amazing things in movies, particularly science fiction films where our hero is often sporting some insanely awesome technology that we would give almost anything to have. How many of us have ever dreamed of owning a real lightsaber, teleporting instantly to another location a la Star Trek, or having access to a virtual reality display system like the one used by Tom Cruise in Minority Report?
Well, while it might be awhile before you can actually hone your Jedi skills or beam yourself up to the mothership, a true immersive virtual reality display isn’t as far off as you think. What’s better, it won’t require some clunky optics or crazy set-up. In fact, this cutting edge technology would be small enough to fit in your eye like a contact lens, which is exactly what we have here in the iOptik contact lens.
Designed by Washington-based company Innovega, iOptiks are contact lenses that enhance your normal vision by allowing you to view virtual and augmented reality images without the use of any bulky apparatus. Instead of oversized VR helmets, digital images are projected onto tiny displays in full color that sit very near to your eye.
Innovega states that because these images are so tiny, they can be housed in a wide array of objects, most likely a pair of sunglasses that would work in tandem with the contact lenses. Normally these images would be too small or near for the human eye to focus on and require a head-mounted display, but because iOptik lenses enhance your normal vision within the confines of your actual eye via the contact lens, the resulting effect allows for very real immersive 3-D large screen images.
Of course it isn’t just 3-D images that iOptiks can project. Innovega says that the applications for iOptiks go beyond simple movie viewing. While the micro-display can be occluded to allow for highly immersive 3-D images similar to what you would experience at the movies, it can also be used for 3-D gaming. You will even be able to utilize a “transparent display for augmented reality applications”.
Sounds pretty amazing right? But how does it work? According to Innovega, and without getting overly technical, the mechanics behind the lenses involves sophisticated optics and filters embedded into standard contact lenses. The lenses allow your eye the ability to focus on these micro-displays that are placed within proximity to your eyeballs. The optics in the lens then magnifies the tiny image found on the micro-display and transforms it into a very large one. Put simply, because the focusing optics are found within the contact lens, resolution and image size won’t be affected regardless of how small or thin the micro-display is.
While it isn’t entirely “glasses free,” it’s still a stark contrast from many of the VR headsets we have seen in the past. The iOptik lenses won’t work without images generate by the micro-display, which is why Innovega is planning to license out the technology to consumer eyewear manufactures as well as established contact lens manufacturers.
It’s interesting to note however that this isn’t the first eye augmentation technology we have come across. Recently a University of Washington research team were looking to develop contact lenses that would allow you to check your email and surf the web. Although, that technology seems further off.
Of course, along with virtually any new technology comes potential risk and harm, especially technology that interacts so intimately with our bodies. Right now Innovega isn’t saying if there are any long term negative eye effects and are working with the aid of DARPA funding to create a prototype for the military. Exact pricing for the iOptiks should be comparable to regular contact lenses (depending on prescription), so it shouldn’t be out of reach for the vast majority of us, while a working consumer version should hit the market in about two or three years.