Anyone who has ever dreamed up a sci-fi future in which neon interfaces float in front of us and information exists not on screens, but projected onto our eyes, is likely watching the blossoming wearable technology market with great anticipation. With its iOptik system, wearables startup Innovega has sighted in on that futuristic vision, designing special contact lenses that will read the light from projectors fitted to glasses. In doing so, it's inching closer to a product that may rival even Google in its wearable ambition.
Optical head-mounted displays, or devices that augment our vision either through full-blown glasses or fixed optics that float screens in our peripheral sight, have come to epitomize the cutting edge of wearable tech. One of the bigger hurdles now is that while the technology may be powerful, the form factor is still that of a goofy computer-glasses hybrid graphed onto our face, and not a single high-profile product has had a chance to test the murky waters of the mass market.
Google's Glass wearable has yet to exit its beta "Explorer Program" -- though prescription lenses appear to be on the way -- and still tends to freak people out and keep the critics testing it in the wild apprehensive of wearing it in public settings.
Innovega, which showcased its unique iOptik augmented reality (AR) device on the head of a mannequin at last year's CES, is confident that it's getting closer to something we'll actually want to wear, but with the unconventional caveat of contact lenses, an untested stipulation at the moment. The company, headed up by CEO Stephen Willey, will be back at CES 2014 next week, but this time with a fully functioning prototype. The device, a pair of sleek eyeglasses capable of overlaying digital media and transparent AR data onto the accompanying lenses, will be worn by Innovega staff on the floors of CES.
But why does one need to slip something over our eyeballs to use the iOptik system? Because by utilizing the specialized lenses to help users focus on both close and faraway objects -- an issue when putting panoramic images inches from the eyes -- in conjunction with the glasses to project the media and overlays, Innovega is able to do two things when most wearables do just one.
First, it can project "glance-able" displays, like Google Glass does exclusively where data is pushed to the periphery. But by utilizing the contact lenses with the glasses, it can also project a full-screen HUD, in other words operate in a heads-up display mode similar to what goggle wearables like the gaming-focused Oculus Rift offer.
The goal with that interface versatility is to deliver something both powerful for everyday use in activities like driving and exercising, but simultaneously absorbing for game playing, movie watching, and app using. "Whatever runs on your smartphone would run on your eyewear," Willey said in an interview with CNET. "At full HD. Whether it's a window or immersive."
As for the physical tech involved, the prototype glasses -- at the moment slim and weighing no more than a standard pair of heavy-duty Oakleys -- are fitted with micro-projectors and nothing else. Willey points out that obvious additions, depending on who Innovega partners with down the line, include audio devices, touch control, a camera, an accelerometer, and much of the hardware now present in Google Glass. That would inevitably make the device heavier.
The contact lenses, on the other hand, are of a more complex breed. They can be worn without the glasses, Willey stressed, and only function with the iOptik software when one peers through the company's paired glasses while the device is activated. To make the prototypes, Innovega customized the standard contact lens manufacturing process with a special design and unique filter.
"All the usual optics in the eyewear are taken away and there is a sub-millimeter lens right in the center," Willey explained. "It's shaped, so the outside of the lens is shaped to your prescription if you need one and the very center of the lens is a bump that allows you to see incredibly well half an inch from your eye."
The second component involved is the optical filter that directs light. "Light coming from outside the world is shunted to your normal prescription. Light from that very near display goes through the center of the lens, the optical filter," Willey said.
As an added benefit, the contact lenses can also serve the purpose of vision correction as normal contact lenses do. That means those already using them -- a growing fraction of the global population that relies on vision correction that also, Innovega claims, includes more than 100 million contact lens users -- can swap them out for prescription Innovega lenses. The company will rely on a partnership with a major contact lens manufacturer, though has not yet disclosed the status of any relationships with any eyewear companies.
Because it's developing something you physically insert onto your body, the Food and Drug Administration is involved, but not at the approval level. Willey stresses that its contact lens will need 501(k) market clearance, a simpler process. "It's called a market clearance because contact lenses have already been approved many times over, with many different designs," he said.
Offering a time frame, Willey estimates that Innovega will apply to the FDA in late 2014 or early 2015.
Right now, the prototype syncs with Android smartphones and will down the line, Willey posits, be able to allow developers to design specific experiences for whatever kinds of devices in which the iOptik system ends up in the future.
Because Innovega has no intention of building out its own app ecosystem or handling the wholesale manufacturing of either the glasses or the contact lenses, it will sell its iOptik system to partners that will end up deciding what kind of functionality -- and thus what kinds of additional hardware add-ons like gesture control and cameras -- will be necessary depending on the use cases, from sports to gaming. "We'll need a partner that will take our design, brand it, and distribute it," Willey said.
The company has thus far been funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and by an undisclosed Asian company that has helped steer the development of the glasses with the hopes that its launch in Eastern markets will prove a pivotal point for wearable tech in countries like China and South Korea.
Whatever form Innovega's wearable takes when it eventually hits the market, its approach that relies less on an app ecosystem and more on functionality and form factor is a unique one that could give it an edge over the dozens of up-and-coming optical wearables. "We've talked to all of them, from the Oakleys to the Lenovos and Electronic Arts," Willey said. "One sees it as electronic sunglasses. Another sees it as what comes after the tablet." Given the iOptik system's scope, there's no reason why it can't be both.