OPINION: Really smart contact lenses
JOHANNESBURG - The worldwide market for Augmented Reality (AR) is growing fast and the widespread adoption of AR technologies involves an irrefutable impact on society. In fact, AR is perhaps an excellent demonstration of how technology can alter our perception of the world.
Over the past weeks many of the amazing applications of AR through the use of specialised glasses or smart phones were covered in this column. However, an American technology company by the name of Innovega are taking the idea of AR one step further, with its eMacula Eyewear system that were developed and clinically tested by a team of optometrists, ophthalmologists, optical physicists, engineers, and nano-fabrication technologists.
The eMacula system consists of the iOptik smart contact lens, along with lightweight glasses that house the display image source and associated optoelectronics. The glasses make it possible to produce a display anywhere in the eye’s vision. Innovega’s dual technology succeeded in eliminating the need for heavy and cumbersome headsets, as well as in delivering a panoramic field of view instead of the characteristically narrow field of conventional waveguide optics.
This unique pairing of lenses and glasses allows the wearer to view rich, high-definition media on the screens in the eyewear, a mere centimetre from the eye, without affecting the normal view or causing eyestrain.
The goal of Virtual Reality (VR) and AR systems is to create virtual worlds in 3D and present them so naturally that it is impossible to differentiate between the real and the virtual. It is therefore essential that the field of view should be large enough (100+°) to create a fully immersive experience. At the same time, the display should be capable of presenting a depth range that extends from infinitely far to less than half a meter.
Most of the current fixed focus display systems do not have the depth of field to present a clear focused image over the full depth range required by VR and AR systems. Additionally, due to the Vergence-Accommodation Conflict (VAC), viewing stereo 3D (S3D) content over this range can be quite uncomfortable. VAC occurs when your brain receives conflicting cues between the distance of a virtual 3D object (vergence), and the focusing distance (accommodation) required for the eyes to focus on that object.
Currently, VAC is one of the biggest challenges for the manufacturers of headset displays. To overcome this problem, developers have taken a variety of approaches, including several methods to actively adjust the focus of the display through opto-mechanical or electro-optical means to change the optical path that relays the display to the human eye.
Other developers created multiple display planes placed at different distances within the depth range so that the display content can alternate between the multiple focus planes to cover the full depth range.
All these solutions have a similar problem and that is that they all add complexity and bulk to the optical system of the headset. Innovega is taking an innovative approach of reducing the complexity and bulk of the head-worn optical system by rather shifting important functionality to the iOptik® contact lens.
With the eMacula eyewear system, the greater depth of field results from a small fixed lenslet aperture, which means that the display content remains in focus even as the eye verges and accommodates to the perceived S3D depth. This long depth of field mitigates the VAC by keeping the display in focus independent of the eye's accommodation state so that the accommodation distance can remain naturally matched to the vergence distance thus creating an uncompromising augmented and mixed reality experience.
The aim of Innovega is that the device should be able to display anything a smartphone can, such as social media pages, satellite navigation, and video calls. Since a range of glasses with different high-resolution display sizes is available to operate with the contact lenses, it is possible for the user to choose between VR and AR. The user can thus enjoy any application available from a smartphone, game console or other media device.
This is particularly useful for tasks that require both hands. Cyclists, for example, could get directions, monitor their heart rate and calorie burn, and compare their progress with previous trips, all while keeping both eyes on the road. Surgeons could check vital readings and other digital data without having to look away from their patients to a multitude of monitors.
eMacula can also function as a full virtual reality gaming headset by using the eMacula occluded VR glasses. The eMacula full field AR glasses were developed in conjunction with the US military to assist with situational awareness and mission critical decisions. In the modern battlefield, the crucial task of identifying friend from foe can be exigent and life saving.
For the busy business person the eMacula system is designed to display the information that is needed right in front of them, so that they do not have to access several apps on their smartphone, but can focus on the task at hand.
What makes the eMacula contact lenses so convenient is that they are designed to correct the wearer’s vision just like regular contact lenses and prescription glasses. Wearers can thus keep wearing the eMacula contact lenses for regular activities when they do not use the display glasses. Current VR and AR headsets cannot provide personalised vision correction, so users have to wear their regular contacts or glasses behind and in addition to the headset. However, this convenience entails that users will need a fitting and prescription of the contact lenses by an eye care professional. Fortunately, the eMacula display glasses do not need a prescription.
Although a remarkable innovation, some critics refer to the unsuccessful Google Glass of a few years ago, which Google has discontinued due to a lack of adoption. Would the eMacula not suffer the same fate? Innovega is, however, fast to point out that Google Glass was a low-resolution, one-eye, off-angle display with a 15-degree, diagonal field of view. Humans have two eyes and 15 degrees is a very small field. Looking off-angle with one eye is just not natural for a human being.
The eMacula is very different and combines special contact lenses with high-resolution displays and can offer 50-degree to 100-degree fields of view. This allows the wearer to look through the glasses and benefit from a full-field-of-view experience.
Innovega also mentions that many people experience eyestrain and headaches from existing headsets. The problem is that most VR and transparent AR headsets create a flat virtual image that is fixed in space on which the viewer must focus. This is not natural for a human being, so the wearer attempts to focus on the apparent position of objects on the screen.
The result is VAC, which consumers experience as eyestrain and headaches. The eMacula lenses provide a long depth of focus so the displayed media is always in focus, irrespective of where the eyes are normally converging. Wearers thus do not experience headaches or eyestrain.
But consumers will have to be patient. The iOptik and eMacula contact lenses are unfortunately not available yet since they have entered the process of regulatory approval and are undergoing phase III FDA clinical investigations in the USA. According to Innovega the anticipated cost of the innovative contact lenses will probably be higher than regular disposable contact lenses and the smart glasses would also cost more than designer glasses.
It would certainly be convenient to be able to cut through the clutter of our digital lives and focus on the things that really matter. The lightweight and discreet eMacula eyewear system offers an uncompromising mixed reality solution where the virtual and real worlds merge seamlessly. Perhaps we will soon be able to see beyond! I am just not sure how many people are willing to wear contact lenses.
Prof Louis C H Fourie is a Futurist and Technology Strategist.