The iOptik display system, consisting of modified contact lenses and glasses, promises to revolutionize head-mounted display-based augmented reality by allowing the wearer to focus on two planes at the same time. Innovega, the company behind the project, developed their ultra-small form-factor head-up display (HUD) setup in frames of DARPA’s Soldier Centric Imaging via Computational Cameras (SCENICC) program, and has now signed a contract with the agency to deliver a prototype.
Head-up displays are transparent displays that allow for the superposition of the presented imagery over what is being observed in the real world, and are therefore great for augmented reality purposes. DARPA has been exploring HUDs for a long time (they were originally designed for jet fighter pilots to allow them to see all the critical information while keeping their heads up, without looking down at the console), so the agency is definitely no stranger to the idea, but the existing solutions were just too bulky to be of any use on the battlefield.
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The SCENNICC program was devised in order to "yield ultra-low size, weight, and power persistent/multi-functional soldier-scale Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance systems that greatly enhance warfighter awareness, capability, security, and survivability." It seems Innovega’s lenses and glasses form-factor may be just the thing.
The key to shrinking the bulky virtual reality helmets was allowing the wearer to see images projected very close to the eye. By embedding optical micro-components within the contact lenses, Innovega engineers managed to divert the light emitted by the HUD towards the middle of the pupil, while sending light from the surrounding environment to its rim. In effect, the retina registers both images simultaneously and in focus.
The iOptics set-up also includes glasses with tiny projectors on both sides, fitted to the temple arms. These projectors would work independently, so they could be easily used to project 3D videos. The production of both the glasses and the lenses is going to be licensed out to external manufacturers, and the solution is likely to be made available to the public towards the end of 2014. Clinical trials constituting a part of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval process are already underway.
Although extending the warfighter’s awareness on the battlefield is definitely important, there is a host of other possible applications that make consumer electronics enthusiasts rejoice, such as immersive 3D movies and games or a whole new level of accessibility for a myriad of existing AR solutions.
Though contact lenses with image-generating circuitry built in are already in development, it seems like it’s going to be a while before they are capable of offering full-color and high definition video. Using contact lenses as focusing devices for the images presented on glasses, on the other hand, still offers a revolutionary form factor while also giving hope for more rapid commercialization. Although there are still challenges to work out (an "eye expert" points out to the BBC that motion sickness is a possible side-effect), it seems like the company is on the right track to meet their 2014 target.
Check out our earlier article about electronic contact lenses where we discussed at length the possible benefits of head-mounted AR going mainstream.