Technology

Scientists Develop Telescopic Contact Lenses That Can Zoom 3X

February 16, 2015 | by Justine Alford

Photo credit: Eric Tremblay and Joe Ford. EPFL.

Over the past year, we’ve heard about some pretty interesting developments in the world of contact lenses. Scientists have made progress on creating a pair of “smart” lenses for diabetics that are capable of monitoring glucose levels, and Google is even inventing a set with an in-built camera. Now, researchers in Switzerland are working towards bringing us magnifying contact lenses that zoom in and out with a wink.

The new visual aids were unveiled last Friday by Eric Tremblay from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in California. The innovative new vision-enhancing system, the first of its kind, includes a set of telescopic lenses and smart glasses that can distinguish between blinks and winks so that the user can easily flick between zoomed and normal vision.

The visual aids, which are still in the prototype stage, could be useful for those with visual impairment, which affects some 285 million people worldwide. In particular, they might one day help people with a condition called age-related macular degeneration (AMD), which is the leading cause visual impairment in adults over the age of 50. AMD is a progressive disease in which people gradually loss their central vision due to cell damage and death in the retina. Although there are glasses in existence to help those with this condition, known as bioptic telescopes, they’re bulky and can interfere with social interaction. This new system, however, is designed to be much less intrusive.

The telescopes inbuilt into the lenses were actually first developed with funding from DARPA as superthin cameras for aerial drones, but they were later converted into a vision-enhancing system that was first announced back in 2013. Since then, scientists have been tweaking the system to make the complementary glasses better and the lenses more suitable for longer wear.

The lenses themselves are rigid and larger than your bog standard lens, covering the sclera, or whites of the eyes. Within the 1.5 mm thick lenses is a ring of tiny aluminum mirrors which bounce light around, increasing the perceived size of objects and magnifying the view 2.8 times. To switch between zoomed and normal view, all the user has to do is wink their right eye which interrupts the light being reflected from the contacts to the glasses, according to Science. When this signal is blocked, a polarized filter in the glasses kicks in which guides light towards the telescopic part, New Scientist explains. To get back to normal vision, they just need to wink their left eye.

Earlier models could only be worn for short periods of time because the amount of air reaching the surface of the eye was restricted, which limited their uselessness. Since then, scientists have improved the length of time they can be worn for with the addition of tiny channels that increase airflow around the eye.

Although the team behind the system has made many major improvements since the first versions, it hasn’t been tested in humans and the amount of time they can be worn is still restricted, so it will unfortunately be a while before we see them on the market.

[Via Science, New Scientist and EPFL]

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