Science & Technology

You Can Shoot Lasers Out of Your Eyes With These Contacts

There's a reason why so many comic book superheroes have laser eye vision. In fact, the whole trope of shooting rays from your eyes is as old as Greek mythology. Clearly eye-beams strike a nerve with the human psyche. And now, scientists have made that sci-fi dream a very real possibility.

Laser on banknote

Laser Eyes, No Surgery Required

So how do you make your eyes shoot lasers without requiring any surgery at all? Simple: put the laser on a contact lens. Of course, that presents some challenges of its own. In order to safely mount a laser-emitting device right on your eyeball, you'll need something that's thin, flexible, and won't interfere with your vision. And that's where Malte Gather's technology comes in. If you recognize his name, it's probably from 2011 headlines when he coaxed a laser out of a fluorescent kidney cell. That experiment led directly to this one, since it inspired thoughts of eye cells made to do the same thing. But instead, the biological approach became a mechanical one.

To make the laser-emitting contact lens, the Gather lab needed to create non-rigid membranes, which had never been used to mount a laser before. It helped that this laser is only emitted when the device is illuminated by another laser. They first created a base out of PEDOT, a common polymer that dissolves in water. They wrapped a different polymer on top of that, then imprinted it with a distributed feedback grating. That grating interacts with the next layer, made of semiconducting polymers, to transform any laser that hits it into another laser going off in a different direction. Finally, the whole thing is placed in water, causing the rigid PEDOT base to dissolve. Voila — you've got a laser-emitting contact lens.

Just to be clear, these aren't Cyclops-level eye blasts. In fact, it's important for the light emission to be very low. One thing they never consider in the comics is that whatever the eye emits, it also has to withstand. So the lasers that shoot from these lenses are limited to just about a nanowatt of energy. That's still strong enough for them to have a million and a half uses.

An Eye Laser for Your Needs

While you won't be fending off alien invasions with your lasers anytime soon, those tiny rays might transform your personal security. They could add yet another level of security to iris scans, the ultimate sci-fi vault code. If the iris reader was able to track a laser signature as it read your eye, it could be made invulnerable to cheaters using HD photos of the iris or (shudder) pilfered eyeballs. Even if you don't have an underground vault with an iris scanner, a laser-emitting eye might be used in the future to easily spot counterfeit bills — run the laser over a high-tech watermark and the truth will be revealed. Well, superheroes may not be real, but it's clear that this technology will be keeping us safe.

Lasers blasting from our eyes to read barcodes is just one of the many ways that technology might transform our bodies in the future. Check out Brett King's "Augmented: Life in the Smart Lane" (free with an Audible trial membership) for more on what science might hold for us. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Not for Eyeball Use

Written by Reuben Westmaas May 11, 2018

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