By Talia Beechick
The same technology that shows computer-generated input in videos is being utilized by Innovega to create their ingenious new contact lenses, iOptik. The technology, known as augmented reality or AR, applies a live view of the real world with elements augmented by computer-generated input. One common example is the line that moves across the lanes of swimming telecasts in order to show the current record holder in comparison to the swimmers’ performance.
iOptik is the first of its kind—the traditional approach to video eyewear involves flat-panel displays in a frame which are aligned to focus the image to perceive a small monitor using oftentimes bulky glasses.
“The advantage of using contact lenses is that the imaging optics can be miniaturized to fit directly in front of the eye’s pupil,” Randall Sprague, chief technology officer for Innovega, said. “By placing the optics so close, it is possible to create a very large field of view images. By eliminating the optics from the glasses it is possible to make very compact electronic eyewear.”
Vuzix’s Wrap 920AR
Vuzix’s snazzy Wrap 920AR design featuring sunglasses with circular lenses on the front that have been deemed “unstylish” when compared to Innovega’s subtle contact lens system. In fact, word has started to spread about this ingenious new concept, and people in high places are already interested in iOptik’s lenses and their ability to enhance vision.
Biological Aspects of AR
“The iOptik is designed to extend the natural function of the eye to allow it to focus light that is diverging,” said Sprague. On its own, the eye can only focus light that is close to parallel, which is also known as light that is collimated. “[The eye] cannot focus diverging light such as that which comes from objects placed very near the eye,” he said. The iOptik helps the eye to focus diverging light to allow images that are placed very close to the eye to be seen with clarity.
Sprague continued to explain that the eye is then divided into two sections, with a larger, outer region focusing on real-world images while the center region views the near-eye display. The display light passes through the tiny, center lens embedded in the contacts, which is focused on the retina. The brain is then able to superimpose this image with the real-world environmental light to create a single image.
The Development of iOptik
Sprague began his work in the field of optics as chief engineer for Microvision, coming in constant contact with head mounted displays and the associated technology and challenges. Upon leaving Microvision to start a solar energy company, Sprague described his idea of AR contact lenses as a “eureka” moment which prompted him to enlist the help of his business partner, Steve Willey, to be the CEO of their new company, Innovega.
And the rest is history. Sprague and his associates created their first working prototype in June 2010 and continue to develop prototypes and component technologies through grants from the National Science Foundation and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA.
Real World Uses for AR Contact Lenses
The system Innovega is developing has the potential for see-through and occluded operation. The first, according to Sprague, supports watching videos, playing video games and reading emails and other documents. The occluded function is when the AR component kicks in.
“It is easy to think about GPS navigation or location specific information, but I suspect the real value of AR lies in applications that have not even been conceived yet,” Sprague said. “An AR display will allow the wealth of information on the Internet to be presented to users in a graphical nature that interacts with the real world. Imagine talking about virtual molecules on your desk and learning how new molecules can be formed, or holding Neptune in your hand to learn about the planets.”
In fact, according to The Verge, the Department of Defense placed an order for the iOptik prototype last spring, and Sprague confirmed his. “Innovega is part of a large team headed by the University of California in San Diego working on this project for DARPA,” Sprague said. “Our contribution to the team is to provide the new AR vision technology.”
The technology may allow the U.S. military to view on-screen maps and troops’ positions to navigate their surroundings without being distracted from the action. Providing map data and live feeds from fellow soldiers’ head-mounted cameras, Innovega’s contact lenses would still allow for nearly full range of human vision at 120 degrees. These lenses would be paired with a head-up display unit (HUD) similar in size to a pair of sunglasses—far less bulky than traditional fighter pilot helmets, which can restrict vision.
Sprague continued to reveal that the program’s overall goal is to capture images using highly advanced cameras which provide not only zoom magnification but also images in wavelengths which are invisible to the human eye. Once this information is displayed on the AR system, soldiers will be far more knowledgeable of their surroundings and current situation. For example, they would be able to clearly see far away objects and even see into dark houses from outside. They may even see images from remote cameras, such as overhead unmanned aerial vehicles.
Will iOptik be Available to the Public?
Rather than marketing the contact lenses on their own, Sprague announced that Innovega will partner with larger consumer electronics companies which will dictate when the product will be available on the market. The plan is for a quality prototype to be created by early 2014 for companies to license. These partnering companies will also have a large say in the cost, though Sprague claims there is nothing expensive in their system and its functioning.
“Once people see our see through capabilities, I imagine there will be a strong rush to develop products,” Sprague said. “This is just so new and novel that many people think it is still science fiction.”
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