Three decades ago, the first group of human subjects interacted with a mixed reality of real and virtual objects. They did this by climbing into a large upper-body exoskeleton, pressing their face against a vision system suspended from the ceiling, and manually performing tasks that required them to engage physical and simulated objects. They were testing a prototype augmented reality system at the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) known as the Virtual Fixtures platform. The hardware filled half a room and cost nearly $1 million, but it worked, showing for the first time that augmented reality can improve human performance in real-world tasks.
Last week, another important milestone was reached in the field of AR, and it highlights how far the technology has come over the last 30 years: the first authentic test of an augmented reality contact lens. It was conducted at a Mojo Vision research lab in Saratoga, California. No, it wasn’t a crude test bed of oversized hardware with dangling wires. This was a true test of an AR contact lens worn directly on a human subject’s eye for the very first time.
An extremely difficult engineering challenge
As someone involved in AR since the early days, I must stress the importance of this new step. Building a wearable augmented reality contact lens is an extremely difficult engineering challenge. When I say that, people usually ask about display technology. Sure, the ability to put a high-resolution screen on a tiny transparent lens is difficult, but it’s not the hardest piece of the puzzle. The more difficult problem is that this tiny lens, which must sit comfortably on the human eye, must communicate wirelessly with external devices and be fully powered without physical tethering of any kind. It’s a daunting task, and yet that’s what Mojo Vision has achieved in its latest demo.
We’ll look back to the years when people walked down the street with their necks bent, staring at small screens in their hands as an absurdly primitive way of interacting with information.
According to Mojo Vision, the prototype lens includes medical-grade micro-batteries. It’s unclear what the battery life is for the current prototype, but according to the company, their product focus is power management that allows for all-day use.
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Of course, their display technology is also impressive. According to the company, the Mojo Lens features a 14,000 pixel-per-inch MicroLED display with a pixel pitch (the distance between adjacent pixels) of 1.8 microns. For context, an iPhone 13 with a Super Retina XDR display has a resolution of 460 pixels per inch. In other words, the Mojo Lens hardware has about 30 times the pixel density of a current iPhone. Additionally, these lenses include an ARM processor with a 5 GHz radio transmitter, as well as an accelerometer, gyroscope, and magnetometer to track eye movements. And all of this relies directly on the human eye.
AR contact lenses are the future
Yet it will take many years of development to move from today’s prototypes to mainstream consumer products that bring immersive augmented reality capabilities to people around the world. I predict that AR glasses, first as glasses and then as contacts, will eventually replace the mobile phone as our primary interface to digital content. Additionally, I believe that augmented reality will completely change our relationship with information, transforming digital content from discrete artifacts that we selectively access into seamless features of our physical world.
A few years ago, I wrote a futuristic article titled “Metaverse 2030” that describes what life will be like when AR contacts become commonplace – a world where mainstream consumers are equipped for new contacts every time they subscribe to a mobile subscription. When that day comes, we’ll look back to the years when people walked down the street with their necks bent, staring at small screens in their hands as an absurdly primitive way of interacting with information. Will this happen in the next decade? Only time will tell, but the realization of Mojo Vision brings us one step closer.