It sounds like a high-tech gadget out of a James Bond movie: a telescopic contact lens that lets you zoom in on the world. But it's real, and it could soon be available to everyday consumers, according to New Scientist.

Developed by Eric Tremblay and colleagues at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, the cyborg-like contact lens utilizes a central unmagnified optical path that is surrounded by a ring of optics. Liquid crystal shutters, which would be controlled by the user, can then block one or another of these optical paths, so the view can be magnified. In other words, the user can effectively zoom in and out on objects like a camcorder.

Other than being straight-up cool, these telescopic contact lens could be a godsend for people with impaired vision, particularly those with age-related macular degeneration. Currently, such people are typically given cumbersome bioptic telescopes, which attach to their glasses to make up for a loss of vision in the central area of their retinas. Replacing those devices with contact lenses that can perform the same function would allow them to operate normally in the world, and more discreetly.

But that discretion could also raise some serious privacy concerns. The lens could give anyone with normal vision a kind of super eyesight, allowing them to stealthily zoom in on other people. In other words, anyone wearing a pair of these high-tech lenses could use them to spy on other people without them knowing about it. So while the contacts would be welcome in the hands of those with vision impairments, in the hands of the neighborhood peeping tom? Not so much.

The research was funded by DARPA, the high-risk research arm of the U.S. Defense Department, suggesting that concerns over spying — or other military uses for the technology —may not be so far-fetched.

Even so, the technology could also lead to breakthroughs in augmented reality. If Google Glass ever catches on, for instance, contact lenses that perform similar functions would be the next step forward.

Right now there's still time to debate the use of the technology, as researchers have a number of kinks to work out before the contact lenses can be made available to consumers or patients. For instance, current prototypes are built of hard plastic, which would not be comfortable in the eye. The acuity of the zoomed-in image is also not up to design specifications, and researchers still need to determine the mechanism for switching the magnification on and off. But none of these details are insurmountable. The arrival of a zoomable contact lens is only a small matter of time.

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Bryan Nelson ( @@brynelson ) writes about everything from environmental problems here on Earth to big questions in space.

James Bond-like telescopic contact lens lets you zoom in on the world
A new telescopic contact lens could soon transform people with impaired vision into high-tech super spies.