August 10, 2016
Do you wear contact lenses?
Do you find that they help your vision in a non-obtrusive way, or do they enhance your appearance at the cost of comfort?
Do you ever wonder what led to their invention, and whether there are any new technologies that will improve their effectiveness in the future?
Let’s take a lens to the contact lens, with a few facts about the vision corrective that up to 10% of all Americans wear—without anyone being able to tell.
The invention of contact lenses dates back to the 16th century, when Leonardo DaVinci originated the idea of controlling the refractive power of the cornea by submerging his eyes in water, thus altering vision by direct “contact” with another substance. Putting this into a wearable medium, however, proved impractical, and for the next three centuries, scientists experimented with ways to correct this, beginning with long, liquid-filled tubes (which prevented blinking), glass spheres which were glued (with wax) to the eyeballs, heavy lenses which covered the entire surface of the eye, and plastic lenses which, quite accidentally, were finally shaped to fit the cornea alone. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the soft gel-like lenses of modern usage came into being, and not until the 90s that they allowed proper oxygenation to the eye. In short, there were a lot of sore eyes on the road to the contacts of today.
Contacts were first used as part of the movie makeup process when actor Henry Hull was made to wear them in the mystery film Miracles For Sale in 1939. Hull played three roles in the modestly-budgeted film, requiring him to look different for all three. Plastic lenses had been developed only three years earlier, making it possible for the shade of Hull’s eyes to be changed. However, lenses still covered the entire eye surface, and were painful to wear for any length of time. By the time of Audrey Hepburn’s usage to depict a blind girl in Wait Until Dark in 1967, much had improved, but actors still tended to disparage the practice. As Lou Ferrigno said of the famous white lenses he wore to depict The Incredible Hulk in the 80s, “I could only wear them 15 minutes at a time. They were hard contacts and they were very painful. They had to periodically take them in and out… you wonder why I was so pissed off.”
Contact lenses must be used cautiously, or unpleasant results ensue. When Johnny “Hybrid” Santos dressed up as X-Men character Gambit for a convention recently, he learned (too late) that the bottle for his contact lens saline solution had hairspray residue on it. After the contacts painfully burned his eye from the hair spray, he pinched out the contact lens, taking a chunk of his eye out in the process. Santos recovered, but the Center for Disease Control and Prevention states that 99% of lens wearers have engaged in at least one “contact lens hygiene risk behavior” which could lead to soreness, inflammation, or infection. From sleeping overnight with them on (unwise unless a special variety is worn), to rinsing them in tap water (which contains potential contaminants) to simply wearing lenses that have grown too old, over 1 million users yearly require health care visits due to contact lens misuse—a number that could be reduced significantly with some simple precautions.
Decorative contact lenses—ones that can change the color or appearance of the eye—have been in vogue, especially at Halloween, since Michael Jackson first wore them to create a “vampiric” effect in his Thriller music video in 1983. Now, one can choose from a vast variety of such novelties, which had 17 million American sales by 2013. These include vivid green “Mad Hatter” colored contacts inspired by the movie Alice in Wonderland, yellow “alien” contacts as featured in Avatar and even yellow cat-eyes like those seen in Harry Potter. However, the FDA is swift to point out that while these lenses do not correct vision as standard contacts do, a prescription is still required to sell, purchase or wear them. Failure to use them properly can lead to infections. So, feel free to go out as your favorite Twilight character next Halloween—but get an eye exam and a prescription from an eye clinic like All About Eyes first.
Contact lenses have only just begun to reach their full potential, if current trends hold true. Google has been working on contacts that will be able to detect blood glucose levels from your tears; the glucose lens will use miniaturized chips, sensors and hair-thin antennae to take measurements and transmit the data. While this will be great for diabetics, anyone could also use these lenses to monitor blood sugar as a way of maintaining healthy energy levels. Samsung, meanwhile, is working to develop contacts that also serve as cameras, motion sensors, and transmitters, allowing users to take pictures and share them via social media. Sony is developing something similar to this, emphasizing the capability of capturing photos and video through the process of blinking.
All in all, contact lenses have had a history as varied as the colors of the iris, one whose possibilities are just beginning—as the over 125 million people who use them may well soon see.