Will military forces get access to night vision contact lenses? Researchers Ted Norris and Zhaohui Zhong believe that the possibility is growing very near. They recently found a new way to sense light using two layers of graphene.
Graphene is a thin, mostly transparent, sheet of pure carbon with 2-dimensional properties. It is light weight and very strong. However, it isn't terribly sensitive to light.
"It's a hundred to a thousand times lower than what a commercial device would require," Zhong said.
To combat low sensitivity, the researchers used electricity. When light bounces off the top graphene layer it interacts with the electrical current in the middle causing a signal that displays a night vision image.
"If we integrate it with a contact lens, or other wearable electronics, it expands your vision," said Zhong. He added, "It provides you another way of interacting with your environment."
The technology is all there and has even been shrunk down to where it is smaller than a pinky nail, but actual night vision contact lenses seem to be many years away. Researchers still need to heighten the light sensitivity and find a way for the graphene sheets to work in a wider range of temperatures. More importantly, they need better funding.
If they were to get that funding and use the technology to produce night vision contact lenses for military forces, how would that affect those on active duty?
"Within the scope of urban combat, night vision isn't really useful. It's so reactive that any sort of light will white-out vision," said Steven Mattor, US Infantry Marine. "When you're using night vision goggles, if you get whited out, you can just flip them up. Contact lenses wouldn't be able to do that. Not to mention, not everyone can use contact lenses. I personally can't. Imagine being in a desert with sandstorms and trying to put a $10,000 contact lens in your eye. Can anyone really do that safely?"
Michael Faltesek, US Air Force airman, said, "One risk is if you couldn't flip it off fast enough in case of light blindness from objects." Kevin Buryn, US Air Force airman, added, "It could be an issue for pilots I think, but for service men and women on the ground I would say the benefits of contact lenses outweigh the risk in that regard."
"As long as you could quickly and easily turn it on and off some people would use it," Arthur J Raymond III, US Infantry Marine, said. "Contact lenses are their own trouble though. They get full of gunk, and you don't often have clean hands to change them out." Raymond also mentioned that he had to wear contact lenses for his first deployment and knows, first hand, why they would be troublesome in combat.
Although there may be further advancements that correct the concerns military personnel seem to have with the idea of night vision contact lenses, the current idea seems to be that the technology is good in theory but problematic in practice.
Norris and Zhong mentioned that the technology had other uses outside of contact lenses; such as in cameras and car windshields.