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An Up-Close Look at the World's First Zoomable Contact Lenses

These one millimeter-thick contact lenses can magnify a user's vision by 2.8 times.
These one millimeter-thick contact lenses can magnify a user's vision by 2.8 times.

"Having a telescope through your eye—that's as old as Galileo," says UC San Diego engineering professor Joseph Ford. The dream of having zoom vision may be centuries old, but the technology that makes it possible arrived just this week.

An Up-Close Look at the World's First Zoomable Contact Lenses
Ever dreamt of having zoom vision, just like the Terminator? Well, the technology isn't as far-fetched as Hollywood would have you think. UC San Diego engineers are currently hard at work to perfect the world's first telescopic contact lenses.

In a new paper, Ford and his international team of collaborators unveiled their design for the world's first telescopic contact lenses. This Terminator-esque technology allows users to magnify their field of vision by almost three times.

Ford and his colleagues aren't the first ones to attempt this. "Long after we'd started the project, we discovered a rather obscure reference in a popular science magazine to a doctor who tried to do this in 1956," says Ford. But without modern optical technology, this ahead-of-his-time inventor had to settle for contacts that must have been excruciatingly uncomfortable at five millimeters thick.

Fast-forward to 2013, and Ford's team has managed to engineer much smaller lenses. Imagine tiny little telescopes—thinner than a dime—that fit right over your eyes. Ford says that's basically what they've built.

In the middle of each lens, there's a hole through which viewers see the world at a normal distance. But a ring of carefully positioned mirrors encircling this opening makes everything look 2.8 times closer when the hole is covered up. The researchers are working on a switch that would toggle between normal and zoomed views when a person winks.

This research was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and has obvious military appeal. But if clinical trials go smoothly, these lenses could also potentially help people with age-related macular degeneration. Millions of people suffer from this retina-damaging disease; it's the most common source of legal blindness in those over 55 years old.

Ford says contacts would be less invasive than current treatments. Right now, people with macular degeneration often get what's called an Implantable Miniature Telescope inserted into one of their eyes.

"It's really a permanent surgical implant of a telescope," says Ford. "Our telescopes may work better than that and provide a brighter image. But more importantly, you can—first of all—switch it on and off. And secondly, take it out if you want to stop using it."

The lenses need some work, though. The prototype described in their paper still provides a pretty fuzzy image. And the lenses remain too impermeable for long-term use, blocking the flow of oxygen our eyes need to function properly. "You can wear them for about an hour before they become quite uncomfortable," Ford admits.

Ford worked with optical engineers from UCSD, the Swiss university EPFL, and San Diego-based Pacific Science & Engineering to prove that the lenses could work. Now the researchers are partnering with companies like Paragon Vision Sciences and Innovega to perfect the contacts, and hopefully bring them to market.

"At that point it changes from a technical problem to a problem of capitalism," says Ford. Look out, Google Glass.