[Image above] Credit: École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne

I’m reminded more and more that I’m getting older. One of my more recent reminders? My declining vision.

It started when I couldn’t pass the eye exam for my Ohio driver’s license last March without my glasses. It ended at my December eye appointment, when I was told that I’m now near-sighted and given a prescription for glasses that I am to wear. All. The. Time.

Despite the added weight upon my nose, I consider myself lucky—according to the World Health Organization, there are an estimated 285 million visually impaired people around the world whose vision issues can’t be corrected with contacts or glasses. And though their data also show that progress has been made in preventing and curing visual impairment, there’s still work to be done.

Enter a telescopic contact lens and its accompanying wink-controlled smart glasses that scientists at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (Switzerland) believe can bring about better, stronger vision.

The eyewear was first announced in 2013 and presented recently at the AAAS Annual Meeting in San Jose, Calif. Since the project was unveiled, the research team has been working to create a more breathable lens.

According to the release, the DARPA-funded contact includes a thin reflective telescope that can magnify 2.8 times. At just 1.55 mm thick, the telescopic scleral lens works by housing small mirrors that reflect light, “expanding the perceived size of objects and magnifying the view, so it’s like looking through low magnification binoculars.” The newest prototype also has 0.1 mm-wide air channels that allow oxygen to reach the cornea.

“Although large and rigid, scleral lenses are safe and comfortable for special applications and present an attractive platform for technologies such as optics, sensors, and electronics like the ones in the telescopic contact lens,” states the release.


Credit: École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne

“We think these lenses hold a lot of promise for low vision and age-related macular degeneration (AMD),” says the devices’ developer Eric Tremblay, researcher at EPFL, in a university news release. “It’s very important and hard to strike a balance between function and the social costs of wearing any kind of bulky visual device. There is a strong need for something more integrated, and a contact lens is an attractive direction. At this point this is still research, but we are hopeful it will eventually become a real option for people with AMD.”

Tremblay says that image quality and oxygen permeability will be ongoing challenges in making the lens a real option for the visually impaired, but improvements to its mechanics and manufacturing have things looking up.

The AAAS meeting also was an opportunity for the EPFL researcher to show off the group’s wink-controlled glasses, which provide “on demand” magnification—transforming the glasses between unmagnified and telescopic vision—that would be useful even for those without AMD.

The electronic glasses employ a light source and light detector to “recognize winks and ignore blinks.” A right-eyed wink means magnify; a left-eye wink will bring about normal, or unmagnified, vision.

“The glasses work by electronically selecting a polarization of light to reach the contact lens. The contact lens allows one type of polarization in the 1x aperture and another in the 2.8x aperture. Thus, the user sees the view where the polarization of the glasses and contact lens aperture match.”

Unlike other glasses available to those who suffer from AMD, these specs are less bulky and won’t interfere with the wearer’s ability to interact socially.

They, along with the telescopic contact lens, “represent a huge leap in functionality and usability in vision aid devices and a major feat for optics research,” says the university.

What do you think about the new eyewear options? 

And for some additional reading, check out these electrochromic eyeglasses developed by Georgia Institute of Technology researchers that easily switch from clear to tinted sunglasses.