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Serious Science: bionic eye in sight?

Our lives are defined by our view of the world around us. With just our eyes alone, we can make more sense of things than we could with any other one sense. What if we could enhance our eyes — making them bionic eyes?

Our lives are defined by our view of the world around us. With just our eyes alone, we can make more sense of things than we could with any other one sense. What if we could enhance our eyes — making them bionic eyes?

Mk1 Eyeball

Catching my eye recently was a story about electrical circuits being placed on contact lenses, by Tal Siach of Walyou.

With obvious comparisons to The Six Million Dollar Man and The Terminator aside, my minds eye was fixed on things like military applications for such visual augmentations.

Right now, things like night vision optics are often quite cumbersome, expensive and not particularly durable in field operations.

It’s no coincidence that the British SAS prized so highly a standard peice of equipment, what they dubbed the “Mk1 eyeball”, which is the human eye.

A tool that, when coupled with a keen trained mind, is a match for any intricate array of satellites, staring down through the skies above, with their scrutinizing and unflinching glare.

So if it were possible to condense the function of such things into something that exists as a sheer film on the surface of the eye, the possibilities are visibly enormous.

Night time incursions would see a huge boost from a tactical HUD (Heads-Up Display) relaying information right inside the eyes of the soldier. Enhanced further by GPS (Global Positioning System) data fed down from government satellites hundreds of kilometers above.

In effect, HQ could command their soldiers and mobile units on the ground and in the air like they were playing World of Warcraft.

And work is underway to create bionic eyes, for a variety of applications, not least military:

“’Looking through a completed lens, you would see what the display is generating superimposed on the world outside,’ said Babak Parviz, a UW assistant professor of electrical engineering.”

However, the real money lies in entertainment, communication and commercial transport:

“Drivers or pilots could see a vehicle’s speed projected onto the windshield. Video-game companies could use the contact lenses to completely immerse players in a virtual world without restricting their range of motion. And for communications, people on the go could surf the Internet on a midair virtual display screen that only they would be able to see.”

The bionic lens is an intricate marriage of material engineering and micro-electronics, comprised of nanometer thick wafers of metal and LEDs (Light-Emitting Diodes), fused into an geometric mesh of sorts.

While this is the very early stages of development — mere tests, in effect — the future is something to behold. A vision come true, in many ways.

Bionic vision — seeing is believing

And as I sat there, reading through the rather engaging academic summary by the University of Washington, I began to think to myself:

“So we have the Mk1 Eyeball, yeah. And we know we have the satellites networks. They’re a given. But now we have this bionic contact lens, as well.”

Imagine the emergency services arrive at the scene of a collapsed building. A minor tremor brought out the worst in some cheap construction work.

People lay trapped underneath, but where? Cries are indistinct echoes from within the remains of the building. The torn metal, shattered glass and concrete only hamper the efforts of those close by trying to hear.

Passing surveillance satellites cast their gaze across this small area of tragedy, peering through the rubble with sensor arrays equipped to see heat, not light.

At the scene, key rescue workers sit on the tailgate of their trucks with their heads back as colleagues deftly slide in their visual augmentations.

Briskly they stand and blink once or twice. They signal with a thumbs up to another colleague stood close by with a hand-held computer. She nods in response and quickly appropriates a signal from the satellites.

The search begins with haste.

Quickly, but with unerring dexterity, a small team of rescuers scamper on all fours across the haphazard pyramid of ruined commercial office space.

Fanning out across the extent of the treacherous heap, they form a very neat grid. And one by one they look down into the heap of the building.

Their eyes see beyond the layers of strewn, torn materials, piercing through like they were but sheets of glass.

Out of the blackness, a warm yellow-orange glow, surrounded by a halo of reds, fading to blues and greens. Out of which the form of a child emerges, arms and legs intact.

To the left of their eyes, numbers appear, giving precise coordinates, based on their proximity to their fellow rescuers, to the building and to the survivor beneath, whose life upon them depends.

It’s all too easy to image a future PlayStation 6, or Xbox 5 providing a feast for the eyes. But what of eyes performing feats in the future? We shall see…

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By Wayne Smallman

Wayne is the man behind the Blah, Blah! Technology website, and the creator of the Under Cloud, a digital research assistant for journalists and academics.

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