Now, researchers from Washington-based company Innovega, funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Science Foundation, are developing novel contact lenses that can help view tiny full-colour megapixel displays.
"Over the past months, we have demonstrated contact lens-enabled eyewear for mobile devices, including smart phones, portable game devices and media players that deliver panoramic, high-resolution experiences for entertainment and planned augmented reality applications," Discovery News quoted Steve Willey, chief executive officer of Bellevue, Innovega as saying.
The new system consists of advanced contact lenses working in conjunction with lightweight eyewear. Normally, the human eye is limited in its ability to focus on objects placed very near it.
The contact lenses contain optics that focus images displayed on the eyewear onto the light-sensing retina in the back of the eye, allowing the wearer to see them properly.
Conventional mobile device screens are often too small to read comfortably "and certainly too small to enjoy", Willey said.
In contrast, Innovega's contact lenses could effectively generate displays with a screen size "equivalent to a 240-inch television, viewed at a distance of 10 feet."
Moreover, by projecting slightly different pictures to each eye, the display can generate the illusion of 3D.
"You get full 3D, full HD, fully panoramic images," Willey said.
Willey said that although some might balk at using contact lenses, "100 million people already do, including 20 percent of the key target group of 18- to 34-year-olds, those involved in gaming and using smart phones".
"So we already have a built-in market. We envision that people who pick up their lenses every six months or so might switch to these lenses, picking them up from the same vendor they already do," Willey told InnovationNewsDaily.
Potential consumer applications include immersive video, 3D gaming, mobile device interfaces and augmented reality applications. When it comes to potential military applications, "this could be the ultimate computer interface for the troops, something that's fully transparent and fully hands-free," Willey said.
"Think of individuals who pilot drones, the ones that fly or the ones for bomb disposal.
"Or think of medics, who can get information very quickly from the soldier and from headquarters and relay it back. Or think of soldiers who need a display who have a gun in their hands and can't have something obstructing their vision for safety and mobility issues, but need access to incredibly rich data such as maps that require full colour and detail," he said.
Potential medical applications include helping those with vision problems, including macular degeneration.
"About 10 million people in the U.S. have macular degeneration, where the retina in their eyes is less able to discern detail," he said.
Scientists at the University of Washington have conducted research into contact lenses that have displays within them.
"However, all we saw reported there was maybe one or two pixels - they had LEDs encapsulated inside a lens, and somehow got power to it for a very short period of time.
"But they would have to deal with batteries and heating, and we already have megapixel displays. I think that research is more to develop an indicator rather than a display - maybe to give an idea of blood sugar level, for instance," he said.
Innovega plans to deliver prototype devices over the course of 2012 and 2013.
"In 2012, we're also aiming to get FDA approval for the contact lenses," Willey said.
In 2014, Innovega plans to begin low-volume production for the defense community and possibly those with vision problems. The company also aims for a commercial launch of their product in 2014 or 2015, depending on whether deals can be reached with commercial partners such as gaming companies.