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Contact lenses zoom with wink of an eye

17 Feb 2015  | Jean-Louis Santini

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Swiss researchers are developing contact lenses that contain tiny telescopes to boost vision and zoom in and out with the wink of an eye.

The new 1.55mm-thick contact lens contains an extremely thin, reflective telescope, which is activated by winks.

First released in 2013 and fine-tuned since then, the prototype was unveiled by Eric Tremblay from the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in California on Friday.

The lenses come with smart glasses that respond to the wearer's winks—but not blinks—so that the user can switch almost effortlessly from normal to magnified vision and back.

The wearer winks with the right eye to activate the telescope, and with the left eye to deactivate it.

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"We think these lenses hold a lot of promise for low vision and age-related macular degeneration," Tremblay said. Macular degeneration is a vision disorder that affects older people.

"At this point this is still research, but we are hopeful it will eventually become a real option for people with AMD."

The device magnifies objects 2.8 times, meaning AMD patients can read more easily and better recognise faces and objects with its help.

Funded by the Pentagon's main research arm DARPA, the lenses were originally meant to serve as a form of bionic vision for soldiers.

"Small mirrors within bounce light around, expanding the perceived size of objects and magnifying the view, so it's like looking through low magnification binoculars," the researchers said in a statement.


Still in progress

Tremblay was careful to stress that the device was still at the research stage, though it could eventually become a "real option" for people with AMD.

"It's very important and hard to strike a balance between function and the social costs of wearing any kind of bulky visual device," he said.

"There is a strong need for something more integrated, and a contact lens is an attractive direction."

The contacts are made using large, rigid "scleral lenses," unlike the soft contacts most people wear, but are nonetheless safe and comfortable, Tremblay said.

Several precision-cut pieces of plastic, aluminium mirrors and polarising thin films form the lens, along with biologically safe glues.

Because the eye needs a steady supply of oxygen, the scientists have worked on making the device more breathable, using tiny air channels that are approximately 0.1mm wide within the lens.


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