Dec. 7, 2012 at 3:07 PM ET
The dream of a bionic eye is closer than ever: Researchers at Ghent University have created an LCD display the same shape and thickness of a contact lens. There's still a long way to go, but this is a major breakthrough.
Many research institutions are working on electronics that can be worn on the surface of the eye. While there is the possibility of having a private display overlaid on your vision, there are other applications as well. An electronic contact lens could monitor the eye for problems like cataracts, and a safety lens could block out unwanted radiation, acting as automatic sunglasses.
There are many problems to overcome, however: Among other things, power must be provided, the display must be itself extremely small and durable, and it must fit the shape of the eye.
But there are also many solutions. Power can safely be provided wirelessly, as recent tests showed. The miniaturization and encapsulation of the electronics is an ongoing process, but critical milestones were reached years ago. And now, Ghent's Centre for Microsystems Technology has created a monochrome display with hundreds of pixels that curves spherically, allowing it to be worn on the eye.
Jelle De Smet, the research team's leader, describes the obstacles and accomplishment:
Normally, flexible displays using liquid crystal cells are not designed to be formed into a new shape, especially not a spherical one... By using new kinds of conductive polymers and integrating them into a smooth spherical cell, we were able to fabricate a new LCD-based contact lens display.
Their prototype display shows a dollar sign, which is both a fun nod to cartoon characters and a way of showing off the resolution of the display. At the moment, the display can't become totally transparent or totally opaque, which may reduce its usefulness in some situations — but that's just another technical hurdle to be addressed.
You can see the display turning on and off in the video below, which uses a prototype from 2011, before they could create patterns using the LCD:
Future research could go in multiple directions, De Smet told me in an email. Biocompatibility, or making sure the device can be used safely, is one thing to confirm. The power source for the display must also be considered; De Smet said there are several options, but because the display uses so incredibly little power, a tiny solar cell might actually be able to pull it off.
The work was a collaboration with Belgium's Interuniversity Microelectronics Centre. Other display research from IMEC can be found here.
Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.