A prototype circuit-bearing contact lens applied to the eye of a rabbit. Photo courtesy UW
A researcher holds a circuit-bearing contact lens prototype. Photo courtesy UW
FEATURED IN TECHNOLOGY AND COMMUNICATIONS
Now that I ve written that title, it occurs to me that there are working cops today who were still in diapers when RoboCop came out in 1987. For those of you in that cohort, RoboCop was set in near-future Detroit, where police services have been taken over by a private corporation called OCP. OCP has business ethics that make Enron look downright benevolent. One of their innovations is to attach part of the head of a fallen cop to a mechanical body, wipe the brain s memories (they re not entirely successful at that, which provides a subplot), and program the resulting RoboCop for their own purposes. Neither the cop nor his family was involved in this decision. High-jinks ensue.
Cops loved RoboCop for many reasons. It portrayed the Detroit cops as overwhelmed, demoralized and unsupported, which I perceive to be still the case in Detroit as well as a lot of other places. It depicted really cool technology, like a monstrous sidearm that never needed reloading and could fire full-auto with pinpoint accuracy, and visual overlays that linked what RoboCop was seeing to online databases. The uniforms and gear favored function over appearance, with BDUs, external body armor and close-fitting helmets that incorporated a radio and headset. The bad guys died grisly, violent deaths. But most of all, there were things getting shot or blown up every few minutes, and several cast members were babes. These last elements are absolutely critical to the success of any cop movie.
Twenty-plus years later, we find the film s writers were prescient. Cops remain overwhelmed and demoralized, uniforms are moving more towards utility and comfort and away from the parade dress look, and we do have some nifty technology that gets better (if not cheaper) every year. One innovation that may be available within a few years could actually produce that real-time visual data overlay, and you wouldn t have to have your head detached and mated to a clone of Optimus Prime to get it.
Researchers at the University of Washington (UW) have developed a contact lens that carries electronic circuitry and light-emitting diodes (LEDs) that can serve as a basic data display. The scientists envision uses such as heads-up displays for pilots and drivers and visual aids for folks with poor sight. But the same device could also give police officers a real-time data display that would mimic their vehicle s mobile data terminal (MDT) and might not even need the MDT to do it.
The challenges to producing such a thing, even as a prototype, are substantial. Hardly anyone uses hard contacts lenses anymore because the soft, disposable kind are much more comfortable and inexpensive (compared to what they used to cost). Geezers such as myself remember how fragile the lenses were. Lose one on the floor, and you could only hope your eyes would find it before your hand, knee or foot did. A tiny crunch was usually good for about a $100 trip to the optician.
And even the soft gel lenses prevalent today must be inert with regard to leaching of chemicals used in their manufacture. Semiconductor circuits are fabricated with arsenic, lead, acids and all sorts of other nasty stuff that you don t want anywhere near your body, and especially not in your eyes.
The University of Washington scientists crafted these lenses from layers of metal only a few nanometers thick (one inch = 25,400,000 nanometers), and used LEDs that go three to a millimeter. The components are so small they appear as a grayish powder, which is sprinkled onto a sheet of flexible plastic. Each component has a unique shape that dictates what other components it can attach to. Capillary forces the same mechanism that allows water to flow up into the roots of a plant bring the components together and into position. This fabrication technique is called self-assembly.
The displays would be powered by solar cells mounted on the lens, or by the same radio waves that carried data to them. Electromagnetic energy makes the signals propagate, and while the amount of power contained in them is usually negligible to humans (not always, though try grabbing the whip antenna of a high-wattage mobile radio while the user is transmitting), it s enough to power a display that must float on top of your eye before you can see it.
You might not need an MDT at all, even while you re in the car. With an integrated microphone and speech recognition software already available, the user could call up the form appropriate for a data inquiry, fill it in by speaking or by scanning a magstrip, barcode or RFID chip on a driver s license or car license plate, and see the reply on the display in the contact lens. Even better, only the officer would see the reply bad guys couldn t look over their shoulder or peek at the display through the patrol-car window.
Much of the bulk of a computer is associated with the interface devices that make it useful. The keyboard, mouse and display all take up a lot of room, and consume a significant amount of power. Take that stuff out, and it might be possible to get the computer down to something between a pack of cigarettes and a large wristwatch. Use the portable radio as the wireless link, and you have a complete system that goes where the officer goes, and is equally useful when on foot, riding a bicycle or motorcycle, in the air or on horseback.
The contact lenses developed thus far won t correct poor vision, but a UW assistant professor of electrical engineering, Babak Parviz, says it would be no more difficult to mount the components on a corrective contact lens. The wearer wouldn t see any of the tiny hardware, either. There s a large area outside of the transparent part of the eye that we can use for placing instrumentation, Parviz says. The full-detail display won t be ready for a while, but a basic display with just a few pixels could be operational soon.
Semiconductor-based technology tends to have a short deployment cycle between the latest, greatest and costliest to commonplace and cheap. The first cell phones in common use came out while I was still working the street in the late 1980s. They were the size of a large brick, had horrible battery life, and cost hundreds of dollars, and airtime cost $.50 or more per minute. By 1991, they were the size of two Twinkies and airtime cost $.10 per minute. Now they re so cheap the service providers give them away if you sign up for an account, and so versatile you can watch movies and TV on them if you want to (even though I don t understand why anyone would want to).
Don t think this technology is stuff you ll never see. If you were too young to have seen RoboCop in a theater, by the time you re ready to retire you ll be taking for granted technology no one has even imagined yet without having to remove your head from your body. But I bet we ll still like to see cop movies with explosions and babes, not necessarily in that order.