A new step in augmented reality: functional contact lenses

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Thirty years ago, a group of human test subjects volunteered to try something for the first time – they climbed into an exoskeleton, pressed their faces against a vision system, and manually interacted with a reality mix of real and virtual objects. They were testing a augmented reality system prototype at the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) which allowed users to engage with virtual objects merged with the real world.

The system filled half a room and cost nearly a million dollars to build, but it worked, demonstrating for the first time that AR technology can improve human performance in real-world tasks.

Last week, a new milestone in AR technology was reached and it highlights how far the field has come over the past few decades. I’m talking about the first authentic test of a augmented reality contact lens. It happened in a Mojo Vision research lab in Saratoga, Calif., and it wasn’t a crude test bed of oversized hardware with dangling wires. No, this was an authentic test of an AR contact lens worn directly on a real person’s eye for the very first time.

Tremendous power, tiny living space

As someone who has been involved in AR technology since the beginning, I must highlight this important milestone. Creating an AR contact lens is very difficult.

When I tell people that, they usually focus on display technology. The ability to put a high-resolution display on a tiny clear lens is a daunting prospect, but it’s still the least difficult piece of the puzzle. The tricky part is that the tiny lens, which must sit comfortably on the human eye, must communicate wirelessly with external devices and be fully powered without physical tethers of any kind. It’s very difficult, and yet that’s what Mojo Vision reached in their last demonstration.

Of course, the display technology is also impressive. According to the company, the Mojo Lens features a 14,000 pixel-per-inch microLED display with a 1.8-micron pixel pitch. To put that into context, an iPhone 13 with a Super Retina XDR display has 460 pixels per inch. In other words, the Mojo Lens display hardware has about 30 times the pixel density of a new iPhone.

Additionally, these lenses include an ARM processor with a 5 GHz radio transmitter, as well as an accelerometer, gyroscope, and magnetometer to track eye movements.

And it all rests directly on your eye.

And that’s still not the hardest part. In my mind, the most difficult hurdle to overcome in getting AR contact lenses is power. According to the company, the Mojo lens includes medical-grade microbatteries. It’s unclear what the current battery life is for today’s prototype, but according to Mojo, their product goal is power management which allows for all-day wear.

The future is AR

I’m sure there’s a long way to go from today’s prototypes to the large-scale deployment of low-cost contacts that bring immersive AR capabilities to people around the world, but I strongly believe that’s where the industry is heading. In fact, I predict that AR glasses – first in the form of glasses, then contacts – will replace the mobile phone as our primary interface to digital content within 10 years.

Additionally, I believe that augmented reality will dramatically change society, as it will transform digital assets from artifacts we selectively access into seamless features of our physical environment.

A few years ago I wrote a futuristic story called “Metaverse 2030which attempts to accurately describe what life will be like when AR contact lenses become commonplace. The article suggests that over the next decade, mainstream consumers will be fitted with new contact lenses whenever they will subscribe to a mobile subscription.Whether this will really happen in the next 10 years, only time will tell.

But one thing is certain today – over the past 30 years, technologies enabling immersive AR have been invented at an impressive rate, taking the field of a room full of expensive Air Force equipment in 1992to tiny clear lenses that adapt to the surface of your eyes in 2022. And along the way, there have been many important innovations, from Microsoft Holo Lens and magic jump helmet to Pokemon Go and Snap AR.

With so much impressive engineering in labs around the world, I remain convinced that AR will replace the mobile phone as the platform of our lives within the next 10 years.

Louis Rosenberg, Ph.D. is a long-time researcher and entrepreneur in the fields of augmented reality, virtual reality and artificial intelligence, and has been awarded over 300 patents for his work in these areas. He is currently CEO and Chief Scientist of Unanimous AI. He began his career developing early AR technologies at NASA and the Air Force Research Laboratory (the Virtual Fixtures project). Rosenberg earned his Ph.D. from Stanford University and was a professor at California State University.

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