Last month Google announced that it will partner with Alcon to commercialise smart contact lenses. Contact lenses are today used to correct visual impairments, but with low-power miniaturised chips, smart contact lenses have far greater potential. The miniaturization of integrated circuits will one day lead to implantable and digestible computing, in the meantime, the next frontier is contact lenses.
Contact lenses are in direct contact with tear-film fluid allowing sensors to detect changes in chemical and protein concentrations — data that aids the non-invasive diagnosis of disease. Beyond health monitoring, smart contact lenses also have the potential to include a small display and imaging sensor that will augment vision with digital information.
The first use case is for contact lenses to measure glucose, but tear-film fluid contains a whole host of proteins and hormones including cholesterol and cortisol. Some of the biomolecules found in tears are as biomarkers for ocular and systemic diseases. Real-time access to biomarkers allows for measurement of levels of concentration. This data enables individuals to regulate their food intake and exercise patterns, as well as acting as an early-warning system for disease.
Initially, smart contact lenses will be an optional diagnostic test alternative for patients; blood tests and even saliva tests will remain more robust in the short term. However, blood and saliva tests need visiting a healthcare professional and cannot be managed in real-time. For low-risk individuals, the benefits of real-time monitoring and the volume of data collected via contact lenses will outweigh the benefits of accuracy. Months of minute-by-minute data used to track various protein concentrations will enable machine-learning algorithms to determine optimal levels for each patient and provide personalized care.
Contact lenses as a medical diagnostic tool have the potential to fundamentally disrupt the healthcare industry and save millions of lives, but they can do even more. A recent patent filing from Google hints at functionality straight from a sci-fi movie. Google’s report shows a contact lens that includes an embedded circuit, a camera, and a sensor, which when combined, offer the potential to live-stream, take photos directly from the eye, and augment vision with relevant digital information (including advertisements). Babak Amir Parviz, an electrical engineer at the University of Washington, ophthalmologist Tueng Shen, and a group of Finnish optoelectronics researchers have been able to embed a LED display into a contact lens and remotely control it.
These advancements are in the nascent stage and it is unlikely we will have full displays embedded into contact lenses just yet. But the development is an issue of time and investment not physical laws. A tiny LED display could be used as part of a glucose-monitoring system which turns red when blood-glucose falls below the optimal level, making self-regulation easier. A single red light could also alert stress sufferers when their cortisol levels are too high, helping them understand their triggers and avoid unnecessary anxiety.
The Google patent proposes an embedded CMOS image sensor allowing users to take photos from their lenses. Such functionality would need the wireless transfer of power or the use of energy harvesting technologies, both of which are not commercially viable today. However, the lenses would not require energy to perform computation, as this can be handed off to a smartphone with the result transmitted back to the lenses. This network allows data-intensive software, including facial recognition and infrared sensing (i.e., extending the visible electromagnetic spectrum), to be completed in real-time and displayed in the user’s field of vision. Enhanced reality software will no doubt expand the processing power of smartphones. Doctors, teachers, police, and armed forces will all benefit from having information available in real-time in their line of vision. As a platform for innovation, visual computing would push the limits of human expression and creativity, driving new and powerful ways of communication and interaction with the world.
The road to blended reality contact lenses is a long one, and it is unlikely to be commercially viable before 2020. In 2015 we are likely to see the first commercial use of smart contact lenses as glucose monitors for diabetes sufferers. More sensors will be embedded over time and sufferers of other diseases or illnesses will have the option to use contact lenses as part of their remote monitoring treatments. Early adopters will likely consider themselves health customers rather than patients, helping move the public debate from passive patients to engaged customers. A shift of this nature will allow customers take responsibility for their own well-being and improve their health.
Regulatory and societal response will determine the speed at which we see embedded cameras and displays in the mainstream. Advanced vision has important implications for privacy and general human interaction. We will have the ability to know when somebody is lying using iris detection. We will have constant advertising in the real world, and the sum of human knowledge available in the line of sight. These capabilities would mean always knowing the answer to a question, knowing everything about the people around you, and having the ability to reply the day through your own eyes. The benefits to society would be vast, but they would also bring about a fundamental shift in what it means to be human. We are entering the world of bionics and transhumanism. The future is closer than you think.