Future: Gotta wear shades

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The beauty of irony is the way it challenges perceptions. Better still is a challenge to perception of, well, perception.

Glasses and contact lenses were created to correct flaws in vision. Call it GPS-plus: The future of "augmented reality" lies in a high-tech contact lens designed even for those with better than 20/20. Augmented reality refers to a computer-enhanced version of the real world, whether direct or indirect. Early forms of AR already exist; the iPhone's GPS and software can provide pop-ups with nearby restaurants and attractions as it travels. The perceptive wave of the future combines AR technology with a mini-lens fit for the human eye.

The Terminator had AR; remember the data superimposed on his vision? Sci-fi readers may know scientist-author Vernor Vinge's characters with electronic contact lenses feeding them "live" information literally before their eyes. Fantasy has already become reality. According to the September issue of National Geographic, the U.S. Marine Corps is using technology developed at Columbia University to train their mechanics. Special eye goggles project 3-D images identifying equipment as they gaze upon it, as well as step-by-step instructions to repair it.

The new AR eyewear technology is not limited to military use. An American company called Vuzix sells glasses fit with miniature cameras for about $600. You can't see through them; they see for you. The cameras provide continuous, panoramic feed which projects inside to the user, who sees the world indirectly. The advantage is the tiny computer adding information to everything in its sight. The potential of all this goes way beyond video games and directions. University of Washington AR scientist (and regular contacts-wearer) Babak Parviz is the genius behind much of this technological advance. His team has already developed a one-LED wireless contact lens which by his description is the Terminator pre-cursor, at least in terms of information (no superpowers yet).

In scientific journal articles, Parviz writes that when they overcome current challenges, such as materials incompatibility and size, multi-LED lens computers could also address health problems such as diabetes. His team has developed a lens sensor which can detect one glucose molecule. Potentially that could mean monitoring (and instant satellite relay to other computers) by special contacts of all kinds of biomarkers without blood tests. Cells in eye fluid contain most of the same biomarkers as does the blood. What about the socioethical impacts of this technology? Consider the Internet. What began as a great convenience - interacting via e-mail and enabling people like me to work easily from home - has become the reason streets once filled with bicycles and skateboards are empty. Instead, the kids are glued to Facebook chatting about trivia with 100 "friends." Rarer face-to-face conversations no longer occur without interruptions of a buzzing phone or a "let me hop online and check." People have entire relationships online, personal and business. They break up both by text message.

Our attention spans, and corresponding ability to focus, have shrunk with the superchip. Intimacy and privacy are going the way of the dinosaur. I'm all for the benefits continually advancing technology bring. Let's just hope we do it with lens-covered eyes wide open and a little self-limitation, lest the fantasy of "The Surrogates" is next.

Sholeh Patrick, J.D. is an attorney and columnist for the Hagadone News Network who resists iPhones and Blackberries, fighting a losing battle for full human contact. E-mail sholehjo@hotmail.com

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