“Mechanical eyes” is quite a strange term to use. But for the purposes of this article, we can classify it as a set of technologies that deal with providing the sense of sight one way or another. This might be for restoring lost vision, for example, or replicating certain functions of the eye.
But better yet, we can also include straight-up enhancements that can exceed the natural functions of the human eye, as with the case of bionic lenses. They sound like a more high-tech version of contact lenses, that is because they basically are. But there’s more to their use than just processing visual data for the impaired.
Why Bionic Lenses are the Coolest Mechanical Eye Implants
“Imagine having the entire internet in the blink of an eye.”
To be fair, the concept of smart eyewear has already been explored. Remember Google Glass? It may not have been the very first concept, but it was one of the first devices that romanticized the idea of practical and realistic augmented reality. Of course, researchers eventually found lots more challenges to this type of technology, but the concept of bionic lenses is the natural next step.
You’ve probably seen these high-tech ocular implants in popular media and immediately realized just how good they can be. Perfectly adjustable vision like a camera, automated analysis of whatever is being focused on, vision beyond the visible light spectrum, and information sent directly to its floating UI. You name any visual perk or addition that technology can do now separately, and integrate it directly to the human eye.
That is the exciting potential that bionic lenses can provide, and frankly, what makes them the coolest type of mechanical eye implants that are quite feasible in a more advanced conceptual form.
Bionic Lens Potential 01: Permanent Glasses Replacement
Of course, the reality is a bit more grounded with development limitations, and probably more than half of what was mentioned earlier is still not possible. Though, when it comes to enhancing the vision of impaired people, at least, one concept is already undergoing active testing: dynamic lens adjustment.
That is, having a pair of prescription glasses inside your eyes that can change visual grading at will. One of the pioneers in commercializing this concept is Ocumetics (literally trademarked as “Bionic Lens”), though unfortunately, the technology is still in its testing and clinical trial phase. In a nutshell, the Bionic Lens is a mechanical eye implant that replaces a damaged or non-functional human eye lens and automatically calibrates itself in order to adjust to the optimal light reception level the retina needs to create a perfect image. Dr. Garth Webb, CEO of Ocumetics, claims it is “three times better than normal, healthy human vision”, and that the implant virtually eliminates the need for the person to wear corrective eyewear (even contact lenses) for the rest of their life.
But perhaps the more astonishing element of the technology is how it is safely put in place. Dr. Garth Webb also claims that the procedure is the least invasive eye medical procedure on the planet, only requiring a procedure less invasive than laser surgery.
One big downside to the technology is that, because it had just begun clinical trials last year (estimated 2023 completion), we won’t exactly see a practical commercial version of the Ocumetics Bionic Lens until 2025 or 2026 at the earliest. And that is since the inception of the technology’s basic concept since 2016.
Bionic Lens Potential 02: The ‘Perfect’ Discreet Google Glass
Another fascinating aspect of bionic lenses is the possibility of transforming current contact lenses into highly advanced hubs of digital information. After all, it’s simply a piece of corrective eyewear. With further miniaturization of electronic components, it may be possible to create a visual medium that relays information wirelessly to a wearable high-spec device such as a flagship smartphone.
Researchers at the University of Washington, for example, have been dabbling with the idea of creating a screen as small as the human iris for computer interfacing since 2008. Understandably, the team is still very far from even transmitting a simple piece of text. Even the relatively more optimized Microsoft HoloLens is challenged by the idea of projecting a floating wall of text into a limited 2.3-megapixel head-worn display. But in the last few years, they have proven that digital information can be successfully transmitted on a tiny, artificial iris-like structure.
On the brighter side, the task of squeezing more pixels onto smaller screens would at least take a considerably shorter time than shrinking electronic circuits. Bigger tech companies like Samsung and Apple have already been showcasing more and more absurd recording resolutions for their high-end smartphone cameras. As such, the emergence of the first fairly good-resolution bionic lens mimicking smart eyewear features might be closer than we think.
What Bionic Lenses Definitely CAN’T Do: Become a Fully Functional Bionic Eye
It may already be obvious, based on the standard features bionic lenses can potentially provide, but the biggest limitation of this enhancement is that it only works for conditions where directly augmenting or replacing the lens is beneficial. Even if it can display complex digital information (via augmented reality), or use advanced algorithms to optimize light absorption, it can never do the more complex work of light transduction as an actual, dedicated bionic eye. It is simply not designed for such a purpose.
This is why eye-related medical problems such as cloudy corneas or inherent color blindness will not be magically cured simply by using an artificial set of eye lenses. Needless to say, the same thing also goes for damaged optic nerves.
Then again, ocular implant applications aren’t really supposed to be mutually exclusive at a time when all of its related technologies are still playing catch up. Remember, even the Argus II, as a fully integrated retinal bionic eye, isn’t a be-all-end-all solution. This is particularly noticeable in situations where retinal section access is no longer possible (for example, if the entire eyeball is no longer there).
Enhancement Without the Sacrifice, at Least
Oddly enough, when you consider the future of commercial bionic lenses, it is probably the only assistive technology that doesn’t require perfectly healthy individuals to sacrifice their otherwise normally functioning (but not enhanced) body parts. If you don’t like the idea of scooping out your eye for an artificial one, you can simply settle for high-tech contact lenses that can probably do the same thing.
Fully functional (as intended) bionic lenses are set to become a huge thing for information technology and networking in the future. On paper, there wouldn’t be any reason for anyone not to use the technology once it becomes widely available at a relatively affordable cost.
If… we put aside potential digital privacy issues aside, of course.
Featured image credit by Paramount.