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Auto Focus Contact Lenses May Soon Become a Reality

Thanks to a study of the African elephant nose fish, the need for eyeglasses may be eliminated. Contact lenses that continuously adjust in concert with one’s cornea are on the horizon. The elephant nose fish that live in a murky environment have the ability to see in the low light, avoiding predators. The study of their uniquely shaped retina is leading to advances in human vision/optics.

The African Elephant Nose Fish (photograph by Kreysing)

The African Elephant Nose Fish (photograph by Kreysing)

The fish’s retina has a series of cup-like structures with reflective sidewalls that help to gather and intensify wavelengths of light that the fish uses to see. Engineers in a recent study made a small device with thousands of light collectors coated with aluminum that reflects incoming light in the sidewalls. The process is similar to that used in some auto-focus cameras. Cameras take an image and analyze its sharpness at the image border to tell the operator whether it’s in or out of focus.

The Optics Involved in the Auto Focus Contact Lens

The Optics Involved in the Auto Focus Contact Lens

Hongrui Jiang, PhD, an engineering professor at the University of Wisconsin and colleagues recently published the study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Creation of a self-correcting contact lens could eliminate the need for bifocals, trifocals or laser corrective surgery. It would also help with presbyopia, a stiffening of the eye’s lens that makes it difficult to focus on close objects, a condition that affects one billion people in the world.

Jiang, however, admits that getting a working prototype of the auto-focus lens is still five to ten years away. He says,

It is a very challenging project. You need to get tunable lenses, a power supply to drive the lens and the electronics, and everything need to be flexible.

The optimal power supply would be a tiny embedded solar cell that can both collect and store energy. Many hurdles need to be overcome before a wearable auto-focus contact lens is available. The payoff would be great.

Jiang says,

There’s a huge market for this and with mass production, the cost is not likely to be a barrier.

The market is huge … as long as it doesn’t make you look like a fish.