What's Up with Augmented Reality Contact Lenses?

In-eye electronics would be a game-changer in more ways than one.

Flickr / suanie

All the way back in 2008, in short 20-minute bursts, laboratory rabbits saw a future that has never been seen by a human, to this day. Though they didn’t know it, when these creatures opened their eyes in front of researchers at the University of Washington, they were looking at the world through genuine contact lens displays. It’s been almost 10 years since these early, 64-pixel marvels first came into existence and so the questions is, where has the technology gone now?

More to the point, as the age of augmented reality (A.R.) fast approaches, how long until everyone can modify their perceptions every waking moment with an A.R. contact lens?

The rabbit lens display was spearheaded by University of Washington researcher, then-Google X director, now-Amazon VP Babak Parviz. “These devices can put a layer of data on top of what we normally see,” Parviz told me in a 2015 interview. “You can put a billboard in a city that shows me one thing, but shows you something else… They can actually fundamentally change the way we look at things, at our surroundings. It’s extremely exciting.”

And yet, sci-fi daydreaming aside, Parviz was also confident that his achievement wouldn’t bested for many, many years to come. “The technology isn’t anywhere near ready,” he said. “For any number of reasons.”

Parviz went on to head the Google X initiative to build a glucose monitor into a contact lens, now of Google’s Verily brand, but has yet to return to the idea of fitting a wireless display into an object with less usable surface-area than a penny. If you believe the filings at the patent office, though, some of the world’s biggest corporations have a good deal more faith in his ideas.

  • Last year, Samsung issued a Korean patent a contact lens with the ability to record what the wearer sees. Crucially, though, it’s vague on exactly how it would achieve this.
  • Last year also saw a Sony patent, for a contact lens with an embedded “image pickup lens” and the ability to take user input through deliberate blinks.

From the Sony patent.

  • Google itself has gotten in on the action, by patenting a contact lens with an embedded camera. And while the aforementioned glucose-sensing project is no A.R. contact lens, but it will push forward the technology needed to build them.

Yet, unless these companies are concealing truly massive research projects, there doesn’t seem to be much active effort toward achieving these technologies. Patent filings aside, it would seem that Parviz is correct that a useful and human-ready A.R. contact lens is quite a ways away. Though he stopped working on the concept almost a decade ago, so far as anyone knows he is still the king of the contact lens display.

Look a little closer at how far he had to go to build the thing, and it’s easy to see why. Not only did they have to literally invent every component from scratch, but they had to combine them through an all-new construction method of their devising.

Contact lens material is incompatible with the treated silicon sort of easily available micro-electronics, and so the team had to build cut all their components out of a special wafer — but they were still to small and fragile to attach to the lens itself. So, the team also had to cut into the surface of the lens a “lock” (shaped divot) specific to each component, and then make each component with a correspondingly shaped “key” hanging off it. They then made tons of copies of every component, suspected them in liquid, and flowed this liquid over this lens. The team had already connected the lock wells together with 3D-printed lines of conductive material, so as the pieces locked into place, they were wired into the system.

In other words, the rabbit lens display was a feat far more impressive than it first appears, and it first appears to be very impressive, indeed. It’s not hubris that leads Parviz to believe his achievement is safe for some time, in rabbits or any other animal, but realism on one very simple issue: power. There are a lot of reasons why real A.R. contact lenses will be a long time in coming, but the primary one is power.

Contact lens concepts have a lot of ideas about how to collect or receive power in a contact lens. Some of the above corporate patents propose to harvest kinetic energy from blinks, or chemical energy from tears, through Parviz and co did it with an antenna. According to him, none of their approaches will scale up in the same way as the energy needs of displays and other pieces of complex technology.

Academia seems to be pitching in here, though their work is preliminary as well. Low-powered LEDs are frequently hoped-for as a solution, but more inventive teams have actually attempted to build suitable displays with quantum dot technology and even LCD displays (video below), but it’s all very early, and none of it has ever been put in a living eye. Not even a rabbit’s.

Parviz said that to him, even a 20-year timeline seemed ambitious for a real A.R. contact lens, but that given all the incredible potential for emergent change, we should still expect it to be an area of active research. “I mean, I don’t quite know what the timeline is going to be,” Parviz said, “but I give it a very, very high likelihood that they’re coming.”

It’s certainly possible that some highly secure Korean facility houses a secret Samsung project that will revolutionize the human experience, but in all likelihood it will be a long time before the average consumer gets to live inside their own personalized world, untouched by the equally personalized worlds of the people all around them.

It’s a future so dizzyingly divergent from our own that only a few science fiction writers have even attempted to explore its implications. All patent filings aside, it seems that Parviz and his rabbits will remain the only living creatures to have caught so much as a glimpse of this future for quite a few years to come.