Many of us rely on glasses or other visual aids to see on a regular basis. Some prefer to use contacts, which are a bit more difficult than simply tossing on a pair of glasses every day, but what if contacts could offer some particularly interesting benefits, like the ability to zoom in on an item just by blinking? This could be a reality in the future, if scientists at the University of California San Diego end up perfecting the work they've been doing on a prototype contact lens that wearers control simply through eye movements.
This new experimental biomimetic lens, thoroughly detailed in a paper published in Advanced Functional Materials, is meant to attach to your eye via stretchy polymer films (most contact lenses are made of silicone hydrogel). This material allows the contacts to respond to the electric signals your own eyes create when they move. You emit these pulses, known as electrooculographic signals, even when you're asleep. It's not something you can always consciously control, but moving your eyes around does create them. This electric signal-controlled eye mechanicsm is similar to the setup that's already been used for those with extremely limited mobility to allow them to control a power chair or wheelchair on their own. While this work is also still very much in its infancy, this "mind-controlled movement" is similar to how the contact lens would work – electrical impulses rather than physical stimulation.
The idea would be to use these same movements for those who wear the lenses to zoom in and out at their leisure using these signals. It may sound like something torn straight from your favorite book of speculative fiction, but it's a very real concept that could in fact come to fruition soon.
This isn't just for a binocular effect where you're looking at something far away and need to zoom in and see things more clearly, though. It's meant as a way for wearers to automatically switch between focusing on objects that are near or far away. This would make things more comfortable for wearers in terms of both getting used to their contact lenses and how often prescriptions would have to change, especially seeing as it would be able to make adjustments on the fly. It isn't clear if those who use bifocal lenses or hard lenses would be able to benefit, but the likely goal would be to ensure as many contact lens wearers as possible would be able to benefit. For many users, the lens could have a telephoto lens effect as well, most likely, but the goal would be to correct sight, first and foremost.
It could be a long way off, however. Right now, the prototype lens is only able to function as part of a larger setup that isn't nearly small enough to simulate that of a human eye. There's a wide variety of testing, miniaturization, and other tweaks that still need to be done before this lens could ever become something close to a reality.
Fortunately, the tech is getting there, and scientists are actively working to refine it. This new type of contact lens could very well be something we use in our lifetimes. And if you're someone who requires visual corrective aids to read or complete daily tasks, you'll likely want to be first in line to give them a try.