LEUVEN, Belgium — What comes after Google Glass? A contact lens with an integrated display, says Jelle De Smet, a doctoral student at Gent University.
The idea hit De Smet about four years ago while he was studying engineering with a focus on display technology. Yes, he wears contact lenses.
He told his doctoral advisor he wanted to write his thesis on the concept. "He said it was interesting, but extremely challenging, and I needed to break it down into steps along the way," said De Smet, who now leads a new research project on the topic at the IMEC research institute.
De Smet believes in two years he could have the technology ready for a first step -- an active artificial iris. Today, a person who has a damaged or deformed iris can get a passive implant to block out excess light, but it doesn't expand in sunlight or contract in a dark room.
"A passive replacement for a defective active biological part is not good enough," said De Smet.
His design uses just nine pixels with multiple grey scale settings to expand and contract in response to changing light conditions. The same technology could be used for contacts that act as sunglasses varying with light conditions.
If all goes well, the next step would be an active, multifocal lens that users can switch depending on whether they are reading or driving. Again, contact lens makers have passive versions of multifocal lenses but not active ones.
IMEC sent a letter to one large contact lens maker a month ago about its new research program. So far it has not received a response.
The big contact lens makers have a deep understanding of optics, biocompatible materials, and safety. "But they don't know anything about electronics design," said De Smet.
"We need to communicate to them the value of sharing our different competencies," he said. "We could do very new kinds of products together, but the existing players are quite conservative," he added.
There's a large potential market with concepts like auto-adjusting sunglass-lenses enabled by the artificial iris. The multifocal lens could serve a billion people with presbyopia, a stiffening of parts of the eye that is a natural consequence of aging and the reason older people often need both distance and reading glasses.
De Smet is quick to admit the challenges are many in realizing his vision of the contact lens display. It requires new materials, stretchable interconnects, perhaps some form of energy harvesting or a micro battery.
He doesn't expect to do it all himself. His new colleagues at IMEC are working on many related developments including stretchable electronics.
"My goal is to see what's out there and combine things -- my job is to be the integrator," he said.
Meanwhile, he also has a PhD thesis to finish.
Excerpts from a presentation De Smet made to press at an annual IMEC meeting are on the following pages.