While they predate the warm and fuzzy moniker that is “wearables,” contact lenses are one of the more common pieces of technology applied to the body today. But, unlike most other commercial wearable devices, corrective contact lenses have not been particularly sexy. They help us see as well as we should see and then their job ends. Or, at least, that’s where it has historically—yes, like everything from cars to shoes to refrigerators, the contact lens is about to get “smart.”
The innovation of smart contact lenses is moving in a few different directions. One notable and noble pursuit is health monitoring. Alphabet’s Verily (formerly Google Life Sciences) is doing work here, with a lens that monitors (via tears) blood glucose levels for diabetics, and startup Medella Health recently secured $1.4 million for its competitive product. Meanwhile, Swiss-based Sensimed AG, has received FDA approval for a lens that tests eye pressure for glaucoma patients. Unlike traditional glaucoma tests, Sensimed AG’s Triggerfish makes it possible to monitor eye pressure for a 24-hour period, including sleep, for more accurate assessment of a glaucoma patient’s risk of vision loss.
The contact lens has an advantage in the health monitoring space—at least compared to other wearables that didn’t originate as medical devices and don’t connect so intimately with the body—but this isn’t the only future for the smart lens. There are new opportunities for vision correction coming, as evidenced by Google and Novartis and EPGL; both teams are developing autofocus lenses in an effort to correct farsightedness. And, of course, there are a number of other innovations in the works that will appeal to our sci-fi’d imaginations, like Ocumetrics, a company that reportedly has created a lens that improves vision 3x better than 20/20. While their “bionic” lens, technically a surgical implant, has received some skepticism from the medical community, it generated a fair amount of buzz in social media. (And, understandably so; for those of us who spent childhoods watching The Six Million Dollar Man, the wait for bionic vision has been long and grueling.)
Meanwhile, Samsung recently filed a patent for a smart lens, which, according to Sammobile, “shows a contact lens equipped with a tiny display, a camera, an antenna, and several sensors that detect movement and the most basic form of input using your eyes: blinking.” This is foundational user interface stuff that sets us up for interactions akin to Google Glass, but right there on the eyeball. It leads a future where the recording of experiences becomes incidental and video games, augmented and virtual reality can be experienced without the need for bulky equipment. In this way, tech becomes more discreet—a point of interest to marketers who have relied on the showmanship of early adopters because how do you fuel word of mouth for “invisible” technology?
More provocative, however, is the potential for change in human behavior as the boundaries between our bodies and information continue to dissolve. If you think there’s no need to lock facts, figures, and trivia into memory because your smartphone is in your pocket today, wait until you can blink your way through IMDB. And how does human interaction shift when Facetime happens in your face, when we have the power to conduct background checks on the fly? (“Hello, it’s great to meet you and…um…are you browsing my Facebook page right now?”) Given the pace of innovation today, it’s not difficult to imagine a world where the smart lens gives a lawyer or student a steroid-like advantage on the intellectual playing field, or a quick lens check become the norm before, say, the National Spelling Bee—all before the next time you need to renew your driver’s license.
As all the world’s information migrates from our fingertips to our eyes, the next logical step is to introduce some level of processing of the information—artificial intelligence—in a lens. Progress here depends a lot on computer vision, the same technology that helps a self-driving car distinguish between a traffic light and a man wearing a green hat. Computer vision is one of the more intensive areas of innovation today—Slate published an interesting piece on the challenges—and naturally there are a number of innovators tackling it. This includes a Russian developer that has created an open source computer vision platform in collaboration with both Google and Facebook. It’s also likely that large scope of data acquired as a result of the first wave of camera-like smart lenses will play a meaningful role in advancing computer vision. In other words, smart lens wearers will be effectively teaching computers how to see.
But we’re not cyborgs (eyeborgs?) yet. Even as humans get more comfortable with the idea of body hacking via objects like radio frequency ID chips, there’s still something squeamish about putting technology right there in the eye. (Cue A Christmas Story: “You’ll shoot your eye out.”) Innovations in miniaturization, like ETH Zurich’s ultra-thin circuit—50 times thinner than a human hair—help address these concerns.
There is also the powering of smart lens technology to consider—how do these things get their juice? Google’s glucose-monitoring lens would be powered by a “reader” device, such as a piece of clothing or headband that sits near the lens. Google also has a patent for solar-powered contact lens, while Sony’s recent patent includes “…sensors [that] would convert the movements of the eye into energy to power the lens.”
With these and other patents and products in the works today, it’s clear to see that both the reach and role of the contact lens is on the brink of transformation. From vision correction and enhancement to health monitoring, from entertainment to data capture and processing, the range of applications for smart lenses is vast and sets the stage for a behavioral shift on par with—if not more substantial—than what we’ve seen with the mobile device. While we’re not quite there yet, it’s a good time to start thinking about the implications—if recent advances in technology have taught us anything, it’s that big changes can happen in the blink of an eye.