Potential medical applications include helping those with vision problems, including macular degeneration. "About 10 million people in the U.S. have macular degeneration, where the retina in their eyes is less able to discern detail," Willey said. One can imagine including a tiny camera on the bridge of the nose of the eyewear to allow wearers to zoom in on text on a screen or on a soup can, he explained.
Scientists at the University of Washington have conducted research into contact lenses that have displays within them. "However, all we saw reported there was maybe one or two pixels — they had LEDs encapsulated inside a lens, and somehow got power to it for a very short period of time," Willey said. "But they would have to deal with batteries and heating, and we already have megapixel displays. I think that research is more to develop an indicator rather than a display — maybe to give an idea of blood sugar level, for instance."
Innovega plans to deliver prototype devices over the course of 2012 and 2013. "In 2012, we're also aiming to get FDA approval for the contact lenses," Willey said. In 2014, Innovega plans to begin low-volume production for the defense community and possibly those with vision problems. The company also aims for a commercial launch of their product in 2014 or 2015, depending on whether deals can be reached with commercial partners such as gaming companies.
In addition to contact lenses, Innovega's patents also cover lenses implanted within the eye. "There are 900,000 cataract operations a year that replace some portion of the lens," Willey said. "You can imagine giving them a lens that not only helps with real-world vision, but also virtual reality, or access to the Internet."
Also, when it comes to the military, "special operations might really like the features involved with our system, but the last thing they want to worry about are contact lenses behind enemy lines," Willey said. "You might think of hardwiring these in to have them permanently."
Innovega exhibited its work Jan. 8 at the annual International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
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