Bionic EyewearThe field of bionic eyewear is growing rapidly. Several companies are developing and testing "smart" contact lenses. For example, researchers at the University of Washington are working toward a lens that will monitor blood sugar levels for diabetics, as well as search for warning signs of glaucoma.
In addition to monitoring, these smart lenses use tiny LEDs to display digital information directly to the wearer, with the same augmented reality that some smartphones employ to superimpose digital data onto real-world images. The potential is easy to envision; with this technology, we may not only be able to check email and read text messages through our contacts, but get an update on important health markers such as blood sugar. (It sounds a bit like the next dimension of Google glasses!)
Not surprisingly, Microsoft Research has teamed up with the University of Washington to advance the development of this product, currently called the Smart Lens. The company plans to release these enhanced lenses "as soon as everything is ready."
Self-Healing SkinThe skin is the largest organ of the human body; it's also the most resilient. Our skin provides a protective barrier for our delicate internal components. It's pressure-sensitive, allowing us to experience sensation ranging from the lightest touch to pain, and it's highly efficient at healing itself. As such, it's been very difficult to reproduce, even though the ability to synthetically reproduce skin would bring a landslide of potential for medicine, and many other fields.
Thanks to researchers at Stanford University, synthetic replacement skin has become a reality. The team has developed a material made from a special type of polymer plastic and nickel nanoparticles that is both pressure-sensitive and flexible. It's also durable - and able to heal itself. In testing, when the material was cut in half and then pressed back together, it regained 75 percent of its original strength within the first few seconds. The split piece was restored to nearly 100 percent after about 30 minutes.
One obvious use for this technology is in prosthetic devices. Because this synthetic skin is pressure-sensitive and able to detect things like handshakes and flexing, applying the synthetic skin to prosthetic limbs opens the possibility of creating a much more realistic prosthetic hand, arm or leg. The material could also be used to create self-healing electronic devices like smartphones, tablets, and laptops. (For more advancements, see 6 Cool Wearable Devices.)
Self-Charging Internal ComponentsFor several decades, the pacemaker has extended and enhanced the lives of people with heart problems. One of the few drawbacks to this device is that it needs a battery to operate. Like all batteries, those that power pacemakers have finite lives, which means that users have to undergo surgery when the battery goes dead. However, engineers at the California Institute of Technology and Princeton University have developed a material that could potentially erase the need for pacemaker battery replacement surgery - and much more.
The team embedded sheets of silicone rubber with ceramic nanoribbons of lead zirconate titanate (PZT), a highly efficient piezoelectric material. The resulting rubber sheet generates power through movement, capturing 80 percent of mechanical energy and converting it to electricity, which can be used by a pacemaker. If used in pacemakers, this material has the potential to keep the devices charged indefinitely, simply through the motions of breathing.
But while one tiny sheet can power a pacemaker, larger sheets of the material have even greater energy potential. They could be embedded in shoes and used to charge cell phones through walking or running. They could even harness the movement of a vehicle's suspension system and keep the battery charged, providing an inexhaustible power supply for future electric cars.