Robotic Contact Lenses
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Robotic Contact Lenses Enables Users To Zoom In On Objects by Blinking

Robotic Contact Lenses

Imagine having the ability to zoom in on objects with the literal blink of an eye. Sounds like something out of a sci-fi flick, right? Now that hypothetical is a reality, as researchers from the University of California San Diego have designed contact lenses that use the electrooculographic signal naturally produced by our eyes to perform vision-enhancing tasks like zooming in and out.

Scientists have been making some pretty amazing breakthroughs in science ranging from outer space, nutrition, artificial intelligence, robots, et al. Speaking of robots, scientists have created a robotic lens that allows users to zoom in by blinking eyes.

The contacts—which are actually soft robots—feature five electrodes per lens. The electrodes are spread across the contacts to act as muscles and are made up of layers of electroactive polymer designed to expand when they receive an electrical signal from the eye.
Bionic humans may be a popular trope of science fiction, but research at the University of California San Diego has brought us one step closer to machine-enhanced vision, Cyborg-style.

Writing in the journal Advanced Functional Materials, a team of soft material mechanics led by Shengqiang Cai describe the science behind a robotic lens designed in a proof-of-concept exercise. Blink twice to zoom in. Repeat to zoom back out. Turn your eye to the left (or right) and the lens will follow.

The new lens embraces the strengths of soft robots (or soft machines). These are robots made of highly compliant materials that mimick the behaviour of living things. For example, you might have a soft gripping machine that can grasp objects as fragile as a raw egg – a task that would be more challenging for a conventional gripper made of a harder material. In this case, the soft robot mimics some of the mechanisms of the human eye.

Robotic Contact Lenses
Schematic and photo of the soft lens system. Courtesy of Cai lab/Advanced Functional Materials

Most soft robots are controlled manually or pre-programmed but the lenses mimic the natural electric signals in the human eyeball that are active even when the eye itself is closed.

Speaking to New Scientist, Dr Shenggiang Cai, who led the study, said:

‘Even if your eye cannot see anything, many people can still move their eyeball and generate this electro-oculographic signal.’
When you make certain eye movements, the soft contact lenses respond. If you blink twice, then the lenses zoom in on an object or something else that you are viewing.

How Robotic Contact Lenses Work

Unlike many soft robots — a type of robotics that deals with utilizing materials that can twist and bend, which are controlled manually or by pre-written programs — the new technology was developed to harness natural electrical signals produced by eye movements.

Researchers measured the electrooculographic signals generated by eye movements, and then made a type of biometric lens that would respond to normal eye behaviour, like moving up and down or from side to side and blinking. Additionally, by blinking, the lenses can change their focal length, which amounts to being able to zoom in and out just as users do on their phones.

The lens itself is made out of salty water (or saline), which is encased in two electroactive polymer films and is controlled by five electrodes placed around the eyes that detect the eyes’ electric potential. This allows the lens to expand and reduce in thickness if and when an electrical potential is detected, effectively allowing the user to zoom in and out just by blinking. And because the lens is made from soft materials, the relative change of focal length may be as large as 32 percent – which makes for a pretty impressive zoom feature.

The design hasn’t been fully perfected – in its current form, it cannot move diagonally, only vertically and horizontally, for example. It can also be vulnerable to errors in movement recognition, which can result in activity beyond what the user intended (or nothing at all). But its potential is exciting. Because the electrical potential exists without vision, it could one day be used as a visual prosthesis, as well as in adjustable glasses or remotely-operated robotics.

Illustration and photos of the soft robotic lens.
Illustration and photos of the soft robotic lens. Courtesy of Cai lab/Advanced Functional Materials

In the study, the scientists placed an elastomer between two electrodes, which activate with an electrical stimulus (provided by the human eye). The activated electrodes cause the elastomer to expand, resulting in zoomed vision. Another double blink de-activates the zoom and sets vision back to normal.

The activated soft elastomer works to increase the focal length by as much as 32 percent. Synchronization between the eye and contacts occurs easily thanks to the polymer’s rapid response to the electrical stimuli. Researchers are hopeful that they can use this tech in the future to create a fully functioning prosthetic

Bionic Eyes are Coming

The robotic contact lenses from the University of California San Diego aren’t the first experiment to create bionic eyes for humans. For example, the Orion cortical implant is designed to restore eyesight for those who are blind. It connects a camera to a brain implant without involving the eyes. Five people received the Orion implant and showed improvement.

Robotic Contact Lenses

Not only could bionic eyes help people with partial or total vision loss, but they could also help others achieve a superhuman vision. Since humans can only see the visible spectrum of light, bionic eyes create the possibility of expanding this to infrared, X-rays, ultraviolet and other light.

In the future, bionic eyes may make it possible to see through walls or zoom in on microscopic life by putting in a pair of contact lenses. They may show you how UV light affects your skin in real-time, or how X-rays penetrate your body during an imaging test. From research to security, the potential uses are enormous.

Questions About Becoming Superhuman

As research continues to advance, it raises more questions about the ethics of people becoming superhuman. If the technology exists, should it be used to create a person with extraordinary powers? Bionic eyes, robotic limbs, brain implants and another tech could transform an average human, but is it fair to use these tools?

Any change to the human body comes with side effects and potential problems. The most serious maybe your body rejecting implants or other tech and becoming ill or dying. Other issues may develop, such as the inability to remove the technology without damage or not being able to live without it. There is also the cost to consider: What happens if only the wealthy can afford to be superhuman?

The possibility of abusing tech and hacking into it always exists. Just imagine losing control of your arms or legs because of a hacker, and it’s easy to see why some researchers worry about the future. For now, robotic contact lenses may seem like a fun novelty that doesn’t have an effect on your life, but this could change soon.

This is not meant to be a formal definition of robotic contact lenses, like most terms we define on but is rather an informal word summary that hopefully touches upon the key aspects of the meaning and usage of robotic contact lense term that will help our readers to expand their word mastery.
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