How would you like a bionic eye, like the Six Million Dollar Man or The Bionic Woman? Researchers at the University of Washington are working on the technology, although they're touting it for more "practical" purposes, like helping vision-impaired people, holographic driving controls or a way to surf the Web. According to this release from the university, engineers there have for the first time used manufacturing techniques at microscopic scales to combine a flexible, biologically safe contact lens with an imprinted electronic circuit and lights. "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. "This is a very small step toward that goal, but I think it's extremely promising." A prototype was tested on rabbits, and the animals showed no adverse effects, according to the release. It adds: Ideally, installing or removing the bionic eye would be as easy as popping a contact lens in or out, and once installed the wearer would barely know the gadget was there, Parviz said.
Building the lenses was a challenge because materials that are safe for use in the body, such as the flexible organic materials used in contact lenses, are delicate. Manufacturing electrical circuits, however, involves inorganic materials, scorching temperatures and toxic chemicals. Researchers built the circuits from layers of metal only a few nanometers thick, about one thousandth the width of a human hair, and constructed light-emitting diodes one third of a millimeter across. They then sprinkled the grayish powder of electrical components onto a sheet of flexible plastic. The shape of each tiny component dictates which piece it can attach to, a microfabrication technique known as self-assembly. Capillary forces -- the same type of forces that make water move up a plant's roots, and that cause the edge of a glass of water to curve upward -- pull the pieces into position.A version that has a basic display with just a few pixels could be operational "fairly quickly," according to Parviz. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and a Technology Gap Innovation Fund from the University of Washington.