The VR Contact Lens Lives! (almost)


Here’s a decent Guardian article about work being done on the VR contact lens — a magical mythical interface device I’ve been writing about since 1994 at least.

Raph Koster, at the Virtual Worlds Summit last Feb, used a story about this device to say "look how fast science fiction becomes reality." Except he missed a few key facts (he’s a friend, so I can tease him): the experimental device doesn’t actually work — it doesn’t even have display elements yet — and has only been tested on rabbits for wearability, i.e., did the rabbit successfully wear a circuit-laden device for 10 minutes without dying…

Yes? Check.

I used the exact same technology example for the opposite intent — to point out long it takes for this stuff to actually become reality — 10-15 years quite often. People were just starting to think about it back in the 90s and the circuit printing technology wasn’t even close to being viable until a few years ago. In 1994, the Laser VRD (a low-power laser shined directly onto your retina) was the size of a coffee table. I had a demo of it back then at the University of Washington. It was one color, just a simple grid. And if I close my eyes, I can still see the ghost image…

I’m kidding. Anyway, that stuff lead to Microvision, which is now about to make money apparently on pico-projectors for cell phones etc.. using an offshoot of the same tiny laser technology.

Speaking of lasers, the article goes on and on about the difficulties of focusing LEDs sitting right above the cornea down onto the retina. Duh. Let’s not waste time on known issues. The solution is coherent light, in the form an on-chip laser with micro-mirrors, or, at worst, that same LED array, but with an under-layer of holographic film to simulate a physical lens assembly, collimating the display. The benefit of the laser is it’s infinite resolution, limited only by the speed of the mirrors.

That’s not even the biggest hurdle, alas. Power is a big problem. But simple eye movement is going to cause major headaches for decent AR registration. Contact lenses float around the eye constantly, sliding, rotating. The lenses would need at least two precisely tracked points with very low latency to properly align virtual light with real images and account for rapid eye movements (some very rapid, some very slow). And that’s assuming any drift in the display element from the pupil center can be tolerated.

This all boils down to 5-7 years of work or some major investment by a big company, which could reduce it to maybe 3-5 years. However, it’d be worth it. I don’t wear contacts today, but I would if they gave me what this device promises. VR glasses can’t even match them in some ways — if you close your eyes, you see your eyelids. But contacts would still be visibile, providing a natural distinction to jump between the augmented world and the purely fictional metaverse. Just close your eyes, and you’ll be transported.

 

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