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Contact lenses that help enhance normal vision with megapixel 3D panoramic images are being designed by scientists using military funding.

For those who do not want to rely on contact lenses, future versions could involve lenses directly implanted within the eye, researchers added.

Over the decades, the video displays that everyone from fighter pilots to the general public use have grown increasingly complex. One possibility for advanced displays is a virtual reality (VR) system that replaces our view of the real world with computer-generated vistas. Another idea consists of augmented reality (AR) displays that overlay computer-generated images over real-world environments. However, these often require bulky apparatus such as oversized helmets.

"Unless the display industry can deliver transparent, high-performance and compact eyewear, developers of augmented reality and other compelling media applications will simply fail to create the excitement that consumers crave and the functionality that professional users absolutely need," said Steve Willey, chief executive officer of Bellevue, Wash.-based company Innovega.

Now Innovega researchers funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Science Foundation are developing novel contact lenses that can help view tiny full-color megapixel displays.

"Over the past months, we have demonstrated contact lens-enabled eyewear for mobile devices, including smartphones, portable game devices and media players that deliver panoramic, high-resolution experiences for entertainment and planned augmented reality applications," Willey said.

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.

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