Scientists recently developed content lenses made of soft robots that zoom in and out on command. The prototype lenses require you to place electrodes around your eyelids. (Image credit: University of California San Diego)


Glasses and contact lenses help improve our vision, but it still doesn’t give you perfect vision. Sometimes an object is so far in the distance no amount of squinting will help you see it. What if you had a zoom-in option? That’s what scientists at the University of California San Diego are working on. They recently created prototype contact lenses that zoom in and out by the eye’s movements. Their findings were published in Advanced Functional Materials.


The lenses are actually soft robots made of stretchy polymer films that respond to the electric signals created by your eyes when they move, like blinking. Featuring five electrodes per lens, they’re spread across the contacts to acts as muscles. The polymer film allows the lens to change their structure when an electrical current is applied, which in this case, were delivered via wires from an external power source. The lens will then either expand, reducing their thickness or contract.


So how exactly does it work? It’s not as simple as putting in the lenses and blinking a lot. The prototype requires a special rig, which requires electrodes to be placed on the skin around the eye, which allowed those movements to be tracked and translated elsewhere. From there, movements like looking down could zoom in on something and zoom out once the user glances up again. The system’s sensitivity would even be able to detect multiple blinks of an eye, which could switch the lens to act like a telephoto zoom lens.


The team cited human-machine interfaces (HMIs) as one of the inspirations for the contact lenses. For instance, HMIs have been developed to use electrophysiological signals to control wheelchairs and functions of exoskeletons. Those HMIs not only allow the disabled to regain their mobility and dexterity but also enhanced the capability of healthy people.


But don’t get rid of your normal contact lenses just yet. The system is still in the early phase and needs a lot of refinement. As mentioned before, the prototype requires you to place electrodes to your face, which isn’t exactly ideal or comfortable. It’s hard to imagine anyone willing to walk around with electrodes all over their face. This means scientists need to figure out a way to put the electronics into the lenses themselves. Still, scientists remain hopeful and see their invention being used in prostheses, adjustable glasses and remotely operated robotics in the future.


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