Vision of the future: Researchers build bionic eye

Nanotech could let travelers check Net, e-mail or play games on floating display screen

Talk about bionic eyes and most people hearken back to the Bionic Woman or other sci-fi shows. Engineers at the University of Washington, however, say it's not all movie magic fantasy.

University researchers reported that they have used nanotechnology manufacturing techniques to combine a flexible, biologically safe contact lens with an imprinted electronic circuit and lights. Perfecting virtual displays could mean that traveling executives could surf the Net or check their e-mail on a floating virtual display screen that only they could see. It also would mean that drivers could see their speed projected onto the windshield, or gamers could become far more immersed in their virtual worlds.

"Looking through a completed lens, you would see what the display is generating superimposed on the world outside," said Babak Parviz, an assistant professor of electrical engineering at the University of Washington, in a statement. "This is a very small step toward that goal, but I think it's extremely promising. ... People may find all sorts of applications for it that we have not thought about. Our goal is to demonstrate the basic technology and make sure it works and that it's safe."

Don't expect this particular contact lens to give you 20/20 vision. The latest prototype is not designed to correct vision problems, but researchers said the technology could eventually be used on a corrective lens without obstructing the person's vision.

Right now, the prototype of the bionic eye includes an electric circuit and diodes that emit red lights for the display. While the diodes are in place in the prototype, it doesn't light up yet. Researchers noted in a report that a major challenge was building the nanotechnology needed for the circuitry on delicate lens material. They ended up creating the circuits by layering pieces of metal that are only a few nanometers thick, and making the diodes one-third of a millimeter across.

Parviz said engineers will soon begin working to add wireless communications to and from the lens. He added that they hope to power the system by using a combination of radio frequency power and solar cells.

Parviz added that he hopes that putting in or removing the bionic eye will be as easy as dealing with a normal contact lens. Researchers said the prototype was tested on rabbits for up to 20 minutes without any signs of adverse reactions.

The project was funded by the US National Science Foundation and a Technology Gap Innovation Fund from the University of Washington.

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