Five years from now, when you ask someone if they wear contact lenses, they might reply “Yes, and they’re my portal to the internet — and with that last blink I took your picture.”
You likely have heard about “smart” contact lenses for medical use, such as tracking glucose levels in diabetics and communicating the levels to a monitoring device that can trigger the release of insulin. Other smart lenses measure fluid pressure in the eyes of people with glaucoma, sending readings to a monitoring device and delivering medication directly to the eye.
Smart contact lenses are being enhanced not only for health but also for entertainment, enabling wearers to search the internet and take pictures. Do enhancements linked to computer systems pose privacy risks? According to Google Glass, the answer is no, because transmitted health data will go only to a device controlled by the person for whom the data is relevant. No personal health information will reach a shared server.
Google is not the only company pushing forward with smart lenses; Samsung patented a contact lens with an integrated camera just this past year, and the military is working on night-vision contact lenses as an alternative to night-vision goggles, which don’t accommodate the full range of peripheral vision.
Sony has a patent in progress for a contact lens with a built-in camera that has autofocus and zoom capabilities, as well as a storage and transmission unit. That means you would be able to save photos and send them to other devices, but we wonder what those devices ultimately will be and what will be done to protect privacy—hopefully Sony will factor in protections for those of us who are camera shy and would rather not be photographed without permission.
Vikram Iyer and colleagues at the University of Washington are propelling smart contact lenses in another exciting direction. They have introduced a novel approach to smart contact lenses via interscatter communication. Interscatter uses the lens wearer’s Bluetooth personal area network to generate compatible signals to Wi-Fi and ZigBee (a mesh network similar to Wi-Fi). The process by which the compatible signals are generated is called backscatter communication, which is the reflection of waves back to their source. “Scatter” techniques have enabled production of the first contact lens antenna and an implantable neural recording interface. The antenna and implant communicate with smartphones and smartwatches, enabling connections of implanted devices to the internet. The developers of this technology have made an informative video to help all of us understand this new dimension of connectivity.
How much smarter can contact lenses get? That remains to be seen and will likely exceed expectations, particularly in light of the fact that most of us are surprised that a contact lens already can connect to and scroll through the internet, measure physiologic functions, deliver medication, communicate with networks, take pictures, and enhance vision. In a few years, we might not know if a classmate is napping or enjoying a movie. And it’s not unlikely to project that a certain number of test-related medical visits will become unnecessary because smart lenses will transmit physical and biological measures to remote sites. And what about the impact of smart contact lenses in store checkout lines? A dishonest person with smart contact lenses may snap a photo of a debit card in the blink of an eye — unless one’s own smart contact lenses will communicate directly with a checkout device that eliminates the need for a plastic card. Smart contact lens possibilities are endless, so stay focused. We plan to keep you informed as smart contact lenses get smarter.
Judi Ebbert earned her PhD at the University of South Florida’s College of Public Health. She has worked at three NCI-designated comprehensive cancer centers and is a writer/editor at Moffitt Cancer Center. Judi has great interest in chronic disease prevention and treatment, and is an advocate for equitable access to care and optimal quality of life for all people. She loves swimming, her dogs and cats, great food, art, humor, and cinematic thrillers. She’s on Twitter at Judi@judithebbert.