AR contact lenses and 3D printed handcuff keys.

Sep 18, 2009

It’s long been a trope of science fiction where one of the characters has the capacity for superhuman access to data in realtime, usually through prosthetic eyes that incorporate heads-up displays that make geospatial coordinates and targeting information available without the distraction of having to look down at a monitor of some kind. In point of fact, this isn’t anything particularly new. Fighter jets like the FA-18 have long had transparent monitors positioned directly in the pilot’s field of vision that incorporate much of the information of the instruments on the panel. Players of first-person shooters like Quake 4 have long taken for granted the presence of an on-screen display that keeps track of remaining ammunition, health, and other essential game statistics. However, this technology assumes the presence of a monitor of some sort, be it an LCD flat panel or one of the older style CRT monitors.

In the burgeoning field of augmented reality one of the major problems being worked on is how to make such a virtual environment accessible without wearing a bulky pair of goggles or walking around peering through the display of your smartphone all the time (as nifty a concept as it may be). A couple of researchers at the University of Washington at Seattle are working on a novel means of putting visual data directly into the user’s visual field using contact lenses with built-in displays. They’ve managed to fabricate in the lab contact lenses that contain a single LED powered by a short-range radio signal.

Right now, this is pretty simple stuff (all things considered). They can display a single pixel or not, on or off. At the rate things are changing, however, pretty soon they’ll be up to a small matrix of LEDs, and eventually a grid of microscopic LEDs that can display something (like a couple of text bubbles) at a decently clear resolution. They’ve already come far by constructing sensors that can detect blood serum levels of various hormones and sugars, and the principles learned are being applied to the displays. They have also learned how to construct circuit paths, radio receivers, and wireless power pickups. The lenses so constructed have been worn by laboratory rabbits for up to twenty minutes at a time with no ill effects.

One of the things I love writing about (in my copious spare time) is rapid prototyping, or using a 3d printer to create an object by laying down successive layers of feedstock. You can do some neat things with it, from making parts to build another fabber to constructing custom or hard to replace components to use elsewhere. While the technology isn’t yet ready to set up in your basement or garage it’s steadily getting there thanks to the efforts of some talented hackers.

You know, I’m trying to find an interesting and entertaining way to describe what someone did at the Hacking At Random 2009 conference not too long ago, and it’s just not happening. A member of the lock hacking sports club SSDeV called Ray who is fascinated by exotic handcuff locks, used a RepRap to construct a replica of the key used to open Dutch police handcuffs. As you can tell from the image on the page I just linked to, the Dutch police don’t bother to hide their handcuff keys, so Ray was able to develop a 3d model of the key in Blender (you can download either the .STL or the G-Code from here) and run it off on a RepRap in hot melt plastic feedstock. He talked a couple of the police on site at HAR into trying his key in their cuffs, and much to their surprise it worked.

Good show! And thanks for posting the files (which I’ve mirrored – if they go away let me know and I’ll repost them here)!