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Smart Contact Lenses: A Futuristic Reality

Posted on December 1st, 2016

Imagine: you’re on a leisurely evening stroll. You look up and witness a glorious sunset unfolding. With the blink of your eyes, a photo of the view is taken and stored remotely in your digital album. Seemingly pulled from the pages of a sci-fi novel, the latest technological advances in eyewear bring us contact lenses that can do amazing things like take photos, auto-focus vision, and detect blood-glucose levels. Let’s discuss where the advances are today and how soon we can experience the reality of smart contact lenses.


Medical Sensors

Google’s smart contact lenses project may help people with diabetes manage their disease. The prototype lenses, from Google’s research division and a partnership with major pharmaceutical company Novartis, contains a tiny wireless chip, a hair-thin antenna, and a miniature sensor; these components work together to measure the blood glucose level of a person’s tears. The technology is embedded between two layers of contact lens material and sends blood sugar information to your smartphone.

The data collected from the lenses can theoretically be used by patients, doctors, and healthcare providers in near real-time to manage diabetes. Maintaining blood glucose levels within an acceptable target range lowers a person’s risk for diabetic complications. Accurate and real-time blood sugar levels can help a person with diabetes make the necessary adjustments to maintain optimal health. One challenge patients and doctors have when it comes to traditional blood sugar monitoring devices is the inability to obtain continuous blood-sugar readings; smart contacts may be the answer to at least some of today’s challenges.

Multiple other research organizations are also entering the scene, with some looking at ways to integrate an LED warning light system and a drug-delivery mechanism that can respond to the blood glucose readings in-the-moment. Prototypes are currently undergoing rounds of testing and approvals. Google’s product was initially anticipated 18 months following the patent filing in January 2014, so we are waiting with bated breath for a release update.


Enhanced Health and Vision

In addition to blood-sugar testing, there are other health-focused contact lens projects on the horizon. Researchers at Columbia University have been testing the ability to predict the progression of disease in glaucoma patients. Glaucoma occurs when increased pressure inside the eye from excess fluid build-up damages the optic nerve. It is often difficult to predict the progression of glaucoma, but smart contact lenses are proving to be promising. Using electric signals in the lens, the device detects curvature changes (due to pressure changes) throughout the day and night. A wireless connected device, such as a smartphone, stores and calculates the data transmitted from the lenses. During trials, researchers have found a correlation between overnight curvature spikes and a faster progression of the disease. This insight could be helpful for ophthalmologists in treating patients with the condition.

Elephant nose fish are at the core of another contact lens advancement that sees lenses auto-focusing a person’s vision when it detects the need for correction. The fish have unique retinal structures that allow them to see in murky, low-light conditions. Using this inspiration, a team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, have designed a device that uses electronic sensors that work with a person’s eye to correct and restore perfect vision. The technology specifically looks to assist those with presbyopia – or farsightedness – by detecting where they are trying to focus, and adjusting within a fraction of a second. According to Dr. Hongrui Jiang, the university’s engineering professor, a working prototype is still close to a decade away.


Augmented Reality

Samsung is also playing in the smart contact lenses arena, but in a completely different way: using cameras, motion sensors, and a hair-thin antenna, Samsung appears to be creating something previously only sported by fictional silver screen heroes.

The project is Samsung’s response to Google’s “Google Glass” augmented reality device. With the blink of an eye – literally – an embedded camera can capture an image and process it on a synced smartphone device. Additionally, a tiny display is able to project images onto the wearer’s eye. With a simple gaze, the surrounding world can become annotated and explained. For example, imagine focusing your gaze on a restaurant and having their daily specials pop into view; picture yourself looking at a movie theater while that evening’s showtimes populate in your periphery. The possibilities are endless and exciting.

It’s unknowm whether the patent filed in 2014 was approved and if we will ever see an actual product from Samsung. Companies often file patents for prototypes that don’t make it to the consumer level. Nevertheless, eyewear technology is advancing, and it will be exciting to witness its trajectory over the next few years. In the meantime, a comprehensive eye exam can often be an early detector of diabetes and other conditions. Book your appointment today at an FYidoctors location near you.