Most developments related to human sensory perception have been reparative – i.e. using new technology to alleviate impairments. Over the past 700 years, corrective lenses have helped those who are visually impaired to see clearly again. Hearing aids help those with auditory difficulties remain connected to their environment. But even more is possible today. New materials and technologies are enriching sensory perception and we can now issue digital commands with our thoughts. The sun has risen on a new age of neuro devices.
Knowledge through vision.
In 2008, scientists at the University of Washington successfully embedded electrical circuits into a contact lens to create a smart contact lens. Since this breakthrough, tech heavyweights including Sony, Samsung, EPGLMed, and Google have started developing their own versions for the market. This will essentially result in a new type of human vision. Smart contact lenses will not only improve eyesight. They will also give the wearer access to an extensive world of knowledge: Google for the eyes – in real time.
Integration of augmented reality.
Interscatter communication enables the exchange of information between a smart lens and the Internet. Launched in 2016, this technology converts Bluetooth signals into Wi-Fi transmissions over the air. Sony and Samsung also registered patents for intelligent lenses capable of recording photos and videos in 2016. These lenses integrate augmented reality (AR) by supplementing human vision with information from the web. Google Lens, a genuine AR-capable technology introduced in May 2017, transforms a smartphone camera into a search engine. While the user browses a shop window, Lens recognizes the store's name and uses AI to gather further information. These details are then displayed together with the latest in-store offers.
Sense the north.
The future may even bring new senses that enable us to perceive our world in superhuman depth. Liviu Babitz, a British pioneer in this field, develops artificial senses with his company, Cyborg Nest. Using biohacking, Babitz wants to enable humans to perceive phenomena that they otherwise wouldn't notice, like magnetic fields, or extremely high and low frequencies. The North Sense device attached to his chest with two titanium bars that sit just under the skin vibrates whenever he faces north. Humans benefit from what is known in the automotive world as 'cross sensorics,' a technology regarded as a new form of synesthesia.
North Sense isn’t the only new way people can experience their environment on a superhuman level. Neil Harbisson has been 'hearing' colors since 2004. Color blind from birth, Harbisson has an ‘eyeborg’ implant that combines color sensors, a microphone and hearing aid, enabling him to ‘hear’ 360 different colors. Harbisson’s brain is conditioned to perceive colors, although his vision is limited to a grayscale.
Devices can also be potentially operated using thoughts. Muse, a sensory headband, makes it possible to play basic computer games with thought control. The process is still very rudimentary, but it works. Developers at Facebook are also working on a technology that will make typing and swiping obsolete in the future. This will make it possible to enter written information on your computer using your brain. It appears to be only a matter of time before we will have neurological implants to replace mobile devices. This technology could become as commonplace as voice recognition is today.
Innovative materials for new senses.
Major advances in material research will make these future developments possible. A metamaterial developed in 2017 is as flat as paper, but functions like a lens. Its structure consists of millions of tiny titanium oxide pillars, each around 600 nanometers tall. That's roughly equal to a stack of five water atoms. 3D printers can be used to plot tiny lenses onto chips as small as a one-eurocent coin. This would be impossible using human hands.
Corrective lenses once improved human performance and quality of life. Today, smartphones and smart glasses are transforming our world into a digital wonderland. What's next? If technology continues to evolve at the same rapid pace, we could soon be saying adios to the ubiquity of smartphones. A slight finger tap on your temple could zoom your eyes to 3x magnification, or set your retinal resolution to 32K. We won’t need to wait long. These technologies are already on the cusp of commercialization.