New contact lenses offer 2.8x optical zoom

Invention aimed at helping individuals with age-related sight degeneration

James Vincent
Wednesday 03 July 2013 11:53 BST
Zoomable contact lenses, source: UCSD
Zoomable contact lenses, source: UCSD

Although Google’s slow-burning marketing efforts have been busy acclimatising the public to the idea of computers in our glasses, the concept of tech-heavy contact lens have been a far more reliable staple of sci-fi books and films.

Contact lenses with simple built-in electronics already exist, but hardly offer much functionality, now, new research has moved science fact ever closer to fiction with the invention of a contact lens with a built in zoom.

At just 1.17mm thick the new lenses offer a 2.8x zoom, and have been created by an international research team  led by Joseph Ford in the US and Eric Tremblay in Switzerland.

Although plenty of average members of the public probably wouldn’t object to zoomable day-to-day vision, the technology is aimed at individuals suffering from age-related macular degeneration. AMD affects the center of the retina where high-resolution images are generated, which the new lenses combat by focusing light through other regions of the eye’s interior.

And although we may imagine contact lenses with built in zoom softly clicking and whirring away in the background, these prototypes can not yet be used without introducing additional hardware.

The lenses essentially have two separate fields of vision – a central unmagnified region, and an outer ring of optics that magnify the image by bouncing light four times within the lens. To switch between the two the user must block off one of the regions – something that can only be achieved, so far, through a modified pair of 3D glasses.

The research represents a step forward in optical technology, but the team admitted there was still work to be done: "Although the magnified images were clearly visible in our tests, acuity fell short of the design specification.”

The next advances will also need to switch the lens type from the current hard plastic (PMMA) to a softer, gas-permeable material that lets fresh air get to the eye and is actually wearable by humans. These are significant hurdles for researchers to overcome, but it seems likely that a commercial zoomable lens is not a matter for science fiction writers only.

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