Smart contact lenses are often mistaken for the stuff of science fiction, and with so much misinformation out there, it can be difficult to sort fact from the ambitious fiction. Modern advances in optics technology have led to exciting new possibilities for contact lenses, and while computers can't currently be installed into our brains, there is plenty of future potential.
What are smart contact lenses?
Smart contact lenses are an advanced optics technology designed to enhance human possibilities. Many smart contact lens projects focus on the Augmented Reality (AR) potential of contact lenses as a way to introduce a computer-like interface to the human eye, but there are a range of other smart contact lens applications, too.
Founder of ophthalmic research and development company, nthalmic, Ravi C Bakaraju explained to Gizmodo Australia via email that, "smart contact lenses are a new ‘breed’ of wearable medical devices that leverage technology platforms like micro-computers, information or communication systems and other electronic interfaces to offer a versatile, information-age solution for a modern human."
The concept of a technology expanding beyond its primary use case is familiar due to smart phones extending beyond telephony function, according to Arthur Ho, Chief Scientist & Innovation Officer at the UNSW Brien Holden Vision Institute.
He also noted smart lenses have the potential to create stronger connections between humans and our physiology.
"[Smart contact lenses] are bathed in a body fluid; our tear-film. This immersed environment means they could detect and measure the body’s physiological states [...] in ways that perhaps other ‘contact devices’ such as a FitBit or an Apple Watch might not be able to," Ho told Gizmodo Australia via email.
This relationship between technology and the human body provides a range of potential that has otherwise gone unexplored in the wearable technology sphere.
What can smart contact lenses do?
Over the last decade, smart contact lenses have been studied and developed for a variety of purposes, with applications including the replacement of conventional vision correction tools, drug delivery, health monitoring, and AR and VR capabilities like object identification.
In 2014, Google's life sciences organisation, Verily, began work on a smart contact lens designed to aid diabetes sufferers by constantly measuring their level of glucose and reporting back this data. While this project was put on hold, Verily went on to pivot towards smart lenses that would "support actions, like sensing and transmitting data, on the eye", according to a 2018 press release.
In the press release, Verily described the new development of "methods to integrate wireless electronics and miniaturised sensors into a contact lens and built thousands of lenses in numerous form factors".
It's this vision of computer-integrated lenses with practical applications for humans that also drives the work of Mojo Vision, a technology company developing products in the smart contact lens space.
Mojo Vision is currently working on a project known as Mojo Lens, which is a smart interface-style contact lens that has the potential to aid those with low or impaired vision by magnifying text, providing higher contrast vision or highlight edges.
The Mojo Lens is controlled by eye movements, and is designed to react to the world around its users, with optional pop-up menus containing text, graphics and information on an as-needed basis.
The company's technology hinges on the industry concept of "invisible computing", which is about the drastic size reduction of modern technology, and the predicted future zenith point where computing is so small that it can no longer be seen by the human eye, but retains its power, complexity and capabilities.
In 2016, this technology was harnessed by a team at the University of South Australia's Future Industries Institute to develop a prototype lens that was able to conduct electricity for use in monitoring health. While the lens doesn't appear to have advanced past the prototype phase, the development is an exciting one because it proves that lenses have the potential to identify personal health issues as they happen.
At Japan's Tohoku University, scientists have recently created a contact lens that self-moisturises to prevent dry eyes. In 2019, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) were reported to be deeply interested in a French smart contact lens project with AR interface-style capability.
What could smart contact lenses do in the future?
While the vision for the future of smart contact lenses is not fully realised, the potential, according to the experts Gizmodo Australia contacted, is limitless.
"Theoretically speaking, smart contact lens technology can offer many solutions," nthalmic's Bakaraju told Gizmodo Australia. "For example: non-invasive glucose monitoring, intra-ocular pressure monitoring, programmed drug delivery for debilitating eye-diseases, autofocusing for correction of presbyopia, dry-eye management, gaming applications, augmented reality and many more."
While Mojo Vision is still in the early stages of its work, the company sees an exciting future in store for smart contact lens technologies.
"We’re currently still in the process of designing, prototyping, and testing, but the goal of invisible computing is to provide people with immediate access to information that they need without the visual distraction of a device," Mojo Vision's Steve Sinclair, SVP Product & Marketing, told Gizmodo Australia via email.
"We believe that information should be there when you need or want it, and then disappear when you don’t. Whether it’s remembering specific steps for a hands-on procedure, getting walking directions from a meeting to a restaurant, checking on your house remotely, or seeing in a dark garage, we envision people using this most when they need information or answers but want to stay engaged and 'eyes up' in their surroundings."
Other potential uses that Sinclair highlighted for smart contact lenses include providing easy-to-access information on the go in industries like retail and service, as well as their ability to strengthen relationships by reducing general electronic device distraction.
Smart contact lenses for consumers are still an out-of-reach reality
But while there are many exciting projects currently in development and high ambitions for the technology, there aren't currently any tangible or viable smart contact lenses on the market. And they appear a long way off for the average consumer.
Bakaraju held similarly optimistic views of the potential smart contact lenses will have in the future, but was reserved about their current progress, believing the technology is closer to a 2024 or 2028 reality.
"The technological challenges to have a functional smart contact lens will demand a titanic effort," he told Gizmodo Australia.
He believes the contact lenses will face significant hurdles in perfecting their technical aspects, such as managing the energy requirements of the lenses, as well as fitting all the required infrastructure within the lens's very small surface area.
The need to provide good quality optical transmission, and more importantly, oxygen for the eye to breathe with the lenses on, were also identified as key challenges.
The Brien Holden Vision Institute's Ho said that issues like discomfort and biocompatibility will need to be addressed before smart contact lenses are a viable option for wearers.
"While development of more biocompatible materials have made contact lens wear safer, we still see wearers complaining about discomfort, eyes feeling dry, and some with eye infections, caused by incorrect wearing of their contact lenses," Ho told Gizmodo Australia.
"To make ‘smart’ contact lenses available and practical for everyone, we need further developments in improving the physiology and biocompatibility of contact lenses in general."
Bakaraju further expanded on the overall challenges that are sure to be faced by smart contact lenses in the future.
"Although the media may sensationalise that the use of such smart devices – especially for science fiction-like applications – are already within arm’s reach, the reality is that these applications are still in their infancy. If there will be an affordable, safe and successful consumer product on the shelf in the near future remains to be seen," he told Gizmodo Australia.
Whether the ambitious vision for smart contact lenses can realistically come to fruition for the everyday consumer is currently unknown, but it's clear that there is exciting, and ever-growing potential for this future technology.