Mission Impossible style smart contact lens gets US military’s attention

WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF

As technology gets smaller the world’s first true Smart Contact Lenses get closer than ever, and there are plenty of companies hungrily watching the space.

 

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The bleeding edge US military research organisation Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is reportedly interested in a new wirelessly connected smart contact lens that was recently unveiled in France as the agency steps up its efforts to find small scale technologies that it can use to augment US warriors visual capabilities in the battlefield.

In April researchers at IMT Atlantique announced “the first autonomous contact lens incorporating a flexible micro-battery,” a lightweight contact lens that’s capable of not only providing augmented vision assistance to users but also relaying that visual information wirelessly – something that the researchers say isn’t too far away from the lens that Jeremy Renner uses in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol to scan a batch of nuclear codes.

 

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More importantly though, the new lens can perform its functions without a bulky external power supply and is “capable of continuously streaming video wirelessly for several hours,” according to the IMT Atlantique announcement.

 

Credit: IMT Atlantique

 

“Storing energy on small scales is a real challenge,” said Thierry Djenizian, head of the Flexible Electronics Department at the Centre Microélectronique de Provence Georges Charpak and co-head of the project.

The lens was primarily designed for medical and automotive applications, but according to French business magazine L’Usine Nouvelle (‘The New Factory’), the lens has garnered interest from both DARPA and Microsoft. DARPA in particular has been on the hunt for a high-tech eyepiece for more than a decade, and the agency has funded several similar projects over the years.

 

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In January 2012, for example, DARPA announced that US based tech firm Innovega was developing “iOptiks” contact lenses designed to enhance normal vision by projecting digital images onto a standard pair of eyeglasses like a miniaturized heads-up display, “allow[ing] a wearer to view virtual and augmented reality images without the need for bulky apparatus,” as the agency put it.

Three years later, researchers at Switzerland’s École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) unveiled a DARPA-funded contact lens that “magnifies objects at the wink of an eye,” as reported by the Guardian, although researchers in that case eventually concluded that the technology was better suited for age related visual deterioration rather than battlefield applications.

“[DARPA researchers] were really interested in super-vision, but the reality is more tame than that,” researcher Eric Tremblay told the American Association for the Advancement of Science at the time.

 

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These past projects, like most other blue sky research projects pursued by the DARPA, have likely informed the Pentagon’s research and development of augmented reality tech that US military planners have increasingly pursued in recent years. And the technology is only poised to improve – as Wired recently reported, big tech companies like Google, Sony, and Samsung are all pushing the envelope when it comes to consumer marketed augmented vision tech. But precisely when “smart contact lenses” will actually hit Pentagon armouries, like most futuristic DARPA efforts, remains to be seen.

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