Da Vinci envisioned contact lenses in his sketchbook in 1508, and after several decades of trial and error, soft contact lenses changed the landscape of eyewear in 1960.
In 2001, a well known science fiction writer Vernor Vinge explored contact lenses with a digital overlay over normal vision. The research to make this reality, is already underway.
Many, including a bionanotechnology expert at the University of Washington is already working to make this reality. In a featured article (http://www.roanoke.com/columnists/casey/wb/298361) in 2009, Professor Babak Parviz explained about several of his prototypes which uses various power sources such as solar and passive energy to power LED pixels in his contact lenses. The next big iteration in the eyewear industry is already here, as Parviz states, “All the basic technologies needed to building functional [digital] contact lenses are in place…What we need to do now is show all the subsystems working together, shrink some of the components even more, and extend the RF power harvesting to higher efficiencies…we see a future in which the humble contact lens becomes a real platform, like the iPhone is today.”
So what exactly is this vision (No pun intended)?
It’s the augmented/virtual reality bandwagon. The iPhone and related Smartphones transformed human-computer interaction by taking computers from tabletops and putting it in our palms, and eased the integration of the virtual world (the cyberspace) with our own reality. The next step many people are anticipating is platform that will allow us to interface with the virtual world without hands, hence, “hands-free augmented reality devices.” The most prototypes feature overlaying computer generated display on our normal vision, and there are currently two main theories of going about it.
One theory propose to turn glasses into these augmented reality gadgets. Google has already went public with its project, termed Project Glass or Google Glasses.
The advantages offered by this system is quite obvious: much more natural interface (no more clicking, typing, i.e. using another medium to transmit our intention), and a much more detailed tracking such direction and voice that can really mesh the virtual world with our real world.
Yet it is not without its associated sets of problems. Google has not made it clear how it will let the users to control and navigate the interface. For example, in 1:30, the menu toolbar suddenly pops into view. How did that happen? There are several ways, such as placing a menu button on the side of the glass, but that would be going against the idea of “Hand-free” device.
And here’s where visual overlay on contact lenses, as pioneered by Parviz’s team, has an advantage: contacts sits directly above eye, so it is much easier to determine track eye gaze to control the navigation than glasses would (they would have to employ a complicated camera system). However, contact lens overlay has its own set of problems, such as power source and lack of space.
One thing is quite clear, however. The future of eyewear will almost certainly be intertwined with that of the digital industry. As more and more of our generation are becoming myopic, and with some much of sensory input determined by our vision, it seems almost inevitable that the next human-computer interface will utilize either contacts or glasses.
This is will change greatly the role of contacts, and eyewear in general in our society. No longer will contacts simply acts as tools to transform our identity, but will serve as gateways to the digital world, as well as our digital identities on facebook and other social networking websites. Then contacts would no longer be simply figurative extensions of ourselves, but actually links our separate identities together.