Friday New Tools Feature: The Melding of Man, Machine, and Media

I've been writing a fair bit recently about augmented reality, which I believe has the potential to revolutionize the way we consume media and information, particularly on mobile devices. However, as has been pointed out, one of the main limitations of augmented reality technology is that you have to be looking "through" your phone for it to work.

So, while reading an article in Wired about flexible OLED screens (like the one pictured at left), this particular passage sparked my interest: 

Ultimately, OLED has potential applications far beyond HDTV. OLED displays can be printed on a flexible plastic substrate, and foldable screens with the thickness of a credit card have already been demonstrated at CES 2009. Clear OLED screens will also eventually be possible, so that a window in your house could double as a TV screen.

We've seen these screens before, but with AR on my mind, I wondered if this tech could be used to create augmented reality glasses or contact lenses, which could work as a secondary display for a mobile device. As it turns out, the folks at Wired seemed to be thinking the same thing - they had articles today about BOTH of these technologies. While the prospect of AR glasses is tantalizing (and likely not all that far off), the contact lens piece in particular caught my attention, because it represents a real blurring of the line between the biological and the technological with respect to perception and cognition. As the article explains, it also has interesting implications for mHealth, something we're excited to be working on here at NDN.  From the piece:

Scientists, eye surgeons, professors and students at the University of Washington have been developing a contact lens containing one built-in LED, powered wirelessly with radio frequency waves.

Eventually, more advanced versions of the lens could be used to provide a wealth of information, such as virtual captions scrolling beneath every person or object you see. Significantly, it could also be used to monitor your own vital signs, such as body temperature and blood glucose level.

Why a contact lens? The surface of the eye contains enough data about the body to perform personal health monitoring, according to Babak Parvis, a University of Washington professor of bionanotechnology, who is working on the project.

The augmented reality people are on board, too, and thinking even bigger. The CEO of Layar, the pre-eminent emerging augmented reality platform for mobile devices, believes that "a consumer-oriented, multipurpose lens is just one example of where augmented-reality technology will take form in the near future. [We should] expect these applications to move beyond augmenting vision and expand to other parts of the body."

The potential applications for mHealth are exciting - as one of the researchers developing these lenses explains,

A contact lens with augmented-reality powers would take personal health monitoring several steps further, Parvis said, because the surface of the eye can be used to measure much of the data you would read from your blood tests, including cholesterol, sodium, potassium and glucose levels.

However, the most radical part of this technology may not be its health applications - we've seen artificial organs employed to help sick people - but the way that it is being employed to expand the capacaties of healthy people in exciting ways, adding new capabilities that no human ordinarily possesses.