Future vision: Wearable tech that requires FDA approval

A pair of newfangled contact lenses, a small projector attached to a pair of lightweight eyeglasses, and -- poof -- welcome to full-blown augmented reality.

Paul Sloan Former Editor
Paul Sloan is editor in chief of CNET News. Before joining CNET, he had been a San Francisco-based correspondent for Fortune magazine, an editor at large for Business 2.0 magazine, and a senior producer for CNN. When his fingers aren't on a keyboard, they're usually on a guitar. Email him here.
Paul Sloan
4 min read
A prototype virtual reality contact lens. Timothy Hogan

LAS VEGAS--The rush is on to market eyeglasses that augment your vision with a dose of media -- from the much-celebrated Google Glass project to a pair of specs made by Visux that my colleague Scott Stein sported the other night here at CES 2013.

And then there's Innovega, which is at CES this year to show off its version of augmented-reality eyewear -- a setup that tries to one-up the others by offering a full-blown media experience through glasses. If all goes as planned, people eventually will be able to watch HD movies or become fully immersed in a video game entirely through a pair of lightweight eyeglasses that make it seem like you're watching a 240-inch TV. (Take that, all you makers of giant TVs, who are filling the floors at CES.)

But we're getting ahead of things. Innovega's approach requires FDA approval because it involves wearing a specialized contact lens. And that process, co-founder and CEO Steve Willey told me, won't be in the cards until 2014. Yet Willey, whose company is based in San Diego and Seattle, is making impressive progress and, unlike at last year's CES, Willey now has a way to show how it all works. Sort of.

A mannequin demoing augmented reality contact lenses

His CES booth is outfitted with a mannequin that's wearing a version of the contact lenses; it contains HD microprojectors so visitors can see what the mannequin sees. In this case, that's a view of people milling about CES, plus whatever media Willey and his team overlay -- such as in the image below that shows the Innovega logo overlaid on the San Diego skyline. That part -- the media -- is simply sent to the glasses from a smartphone or laptop.

The goal here is to get away from the Google model, which uses what's known as a glanceable display. When you look through those types of specialized glasses, you see a postage-stamp type image off to the side that shows media -- your text messages, say, along with your Twitter feed or, potentially, ads. (It's Google, after all.)

While this is great, Willey said it falls short of what people will eventually want -- a full-media overlay that either becomes the only thing the user can see (as would be necessary for a video game), or a mix of media and reality. The problem with creating the full, panoramic view is that human eyes can't focus on objects that are right up against them. That's where the specialized contact lenses come in; Innovega's lenses enable the wearer to focus on objects that are superclose while also focusing on whatever's in the distance.

San Diego with a mix of virtual reality. Innovega

The other part of the setup is fairly simple: A small camera attaches to a pair of lightweight glasses -- in theory, they could be any sports glasses -- that projects the media onto the lenses. Because of the contact lenses, you -- or, for now, the mannequin -- can focus on an overlay displayed across the lens of the eyeglasses.

"People want a big image," said Willey, who formed the company in 2008. "Natural vision is full HD and panoramic, and what we're delivering starts to rival natural vision -- a blend of virtual and real world for cool entertainment depending on where you're standing, where you're looking. The main thing is that you see both in perfect focus."

His key customer so far is the military. Last spring, Innovega won a contract to supply the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) with a prototype of its iOptik spectacles and accompanying contact lenses. The goal is to offer soldiers in harsh conditions a way to get information about battles without having to look at a handheld device or interfering with their normal view. "If you're in the middle of a desert in sunshine, a handheld doesn't work," Willey pointed out. "The military wants a rich display that gets a device out of their hands."

Now Willey is hoping some big consumer companies also want in. He said he talked to a few last year, hoping to find strategic partners, but people didn't believe him. "They all said it sounded like science fiction," he said.

So Willey rigged up the mannequin to demonstrate that they can make a person see the real and virtual world around them. And should he win FDA approval, the market could be huge: These contact lenses could replace regular contacts for many people, he said, because they work fine even when you're not looking at a virtual world.

It's easy to imagine plenty of use cases -- a surgeon, say, who is watching images within a body while operating -- but Willey says he wants to tackle the consumer market, hoping to partner with, say, Microsoft, Sony, or Qualcomm, to bring this to market in ways to be determined. I could see use cases for athletes, and plenty more. Willey said he feels certain of the appeal for gamers. "3D gaming is still on a flat screen," he said. "What you really want is to believe you're inside the game."

For a sense of the whole thing, check out this video: