Super soldier Captain America may have had excellent vision back in the 40s, but modern soldiers may have the opportunity to outstrip the Avenger’s sight with Predator-style vision.
Innovega’s iOptik contact lenses sharpen real world vision while simultaneously simulating a 3D HD panoramic screen. The company hopes to gain FDA approval this year -- and the Department of Defense has recently placed an order for a prototype.
HUDs (head-up displays) that present a virtual computer screen to the viewer have become increasingly advanced and complex. But military models, notably bulky helmets for fighter pilots that overlay data on targets, tend to be cumbersome.
A computer interface that’s entirely hands-free could give troops a clear advantage.
For example, soldiers, marines, airmen or seamen who need their hands free for weapons use could study a detailed map without toying with a handheld or dropping their gaze. The iOptik system could also potentially provide real-time feeds from satellites, drones or even a teammate’s helmet camera, displayed as if on a transluscent computer screen to a fighter on the move.
Innovega’s iOptik contact lenses are intended to be fielded together with a far more compact HUD unit; picture Oakley sunglasses modified to allow the images to be projected onto them.
There are two primary options for this type of display: VR (virtual reality) systems that swap a soldier’s real world view for a computer generated one, and AR (augmented reality) systems that superimpose computer generated images over reality.
Research undertaken by the company has been funded by DARPA and the National Science Foundation and their AR lenses work by using two different filters in each lens -- in effect the soldier can see through the data to the real world.
The system creates a dual-focus effect for the eye by sending light to different parts of the pupil; the retina sees both images in focus simultaneously. A data feed (or satellite feed, or map info or whatever) is sent from the center of each lens to the center of the pupil while light from the real world is directed by the outer part of the lens to the rim of the pupil.
The human eye has a restricted capacity to focus on very near objects, leading to solutions that make data appear as if on a computer screen several feet away; Innovega’s iOptik creates the effect of viewing a 20-foot television at a distance of 10 feet.
The sense of 3D in the virtual display is created by projecting slightly varied pictures to each eye.
Innovega’s research indicates that half of users would benefit from a prescription lens, so the company built that feature into the iOptik lenses as well. So they’ll sharpen your real world vision as well as give you Predator-style sight.
The gaming world has also been busy advancing HUDs, but current approaches tend to rely on video eyewear that incorporate small flat panel displays that must be aligned with the optical components to focus the image and achieve the distant screen effect -- meaning bulky, uncool eyewear that obstructs the gamer’s view of the real world.
The company’s approach eliminates the optics entirely from the eyewear frame and utilizes transparent optics, so the wearer retains his peripheral vision.
In less than two years, the company expects to commence low volume production for the defense community … and hopes it will have a model for civilians with vision problems as well.
Innovega’s patents also include lenses that could be implanted in the eye. The company hopes to give cataract patients who need to have their lens replaced the option of choosing new lens that give them access to the Internet.
3D gaming, immersive video, augmented reality apps and mobile device interfaces are a few of the wider applications; the company hopes to license the technology so that gamers can expect the lenses may be available to the wider public as soon as 2014.
Innovega believes its high-tech contacts could become the preferred platform for social media and augmented reality apps providing an improved immersive experience for gamers such as with Google’s Project Glass. After all, 100 million Americans already use standard contact lenses, and 20 million of these folks are in the target 18- to 34-year old gaming and social media demographic.
The technology does raise questions, of course. Will soldiers take to it or will data overload impair their performance? And are such contact lenses safe to take into battle?
Fighters require their full vision for situational awareness. And Innovega’s technology certainly holds promise -- enough that the Department of Defense was willing to take the gamble.
Would warriors do the same?
Ballet dancer turned defense specialist Allison Barrie has travelled around the world covering the military, terrorism, weapons advancements and life on the front line. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @Allison_Barrie.