By now almost everyone has heard of Google Glass, the nerdy-chic glasses that display information to the wearer via a small prism. Now, there’s the Google contact lens, which, in case your were wondering, won’t help your vision either.
Rather, the purpose of the contact lens is to continuously monitor the glucose levels of diabetics via their tears so that they can more easily manage the disease. This wearable-technology project is still in the early stages, but may become a reality for consumers in the next five years.
The prototype lenses incorporate tiny wireless chips and glucose sensors sandwiched between two layers of soft contact lens material. A tiny pinhole in the lens lets tear fluid seep into the sensor to measure blood sugar levels once every second – a much less painful and disruptive way to check blood sugar than finger pricks.
Google says the electronics in the lens are so small that they appear to be specks of glitter, and the wireless antenna is thinner than a human hair. To bring this concept to reality, Google has recently brought the lenses to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and early independent clinical studies have begun.
As a next step, Google is working on putting LED lights inside the lenses that would flash when sugar levels are out of a normal health range. Hmm… flashing lights in your eyes… not so sure about that.
Google[x] Labs. These smart contact lenses come out of Google’s secretive research lab Google[x], and were recently discussed in a blog post by project co-founders Brian Otis and Babak Parviz. Google[x] was established in 2010 and is separate from the company’s core business. It gives its researchers plenty of freedom and funding, and is known for developing “moonshot” projects – striving to fix issues that are huge problems for humanity.
Parviz also led the Google Glass team, and both he and Otis were electrical engineering faculty members at the University of Washington before moving over to Google[x]. Parviz initially caught the attention of Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page with a paper about the possibility of smart contact lenses with built-in electronics that could project images onto the wearer’s eye.
How does it work? Otis and the Google team worked hard to develop tiny, low-powered electronics, leveraging innovation in the semiconductor industry aimed at making cellphones smaller and more powerful.
Otis used advanced engineering to get integrated circuits and a glucose sensor into such a small space. He incorporated a system to pull energy from incoming radio frequency waves to power the device with enough juice to collect and transmit the glucose reading. The embedded electronics circle the outside of the lens so they won’t obscure a wearer’s vision.
But, this isn’t the first time this idea has emerged. While still at the University of Washington, Parvis collaborated with Microsoft on the idea, but Microsoft didn’t move the project forward. Other alternative solutions for monitoring glucose levels are being researched, including near-infrared methods, or testing saliva or exhaled breath.
The Diabetes Problem. Diabetes is a huge and growing problem—affecting one in every 19 people, or some 382 million people worldwide. Unfortunately, the disease is increasing in every country.
The National Diabetes Education Program estimates that more than 8% of Americans have diabetes and another 25% are pre-diabetic. That means that every day multiple times a day more than 25 million people in this country must take time out to prick their fingers to test their blood sugar levels.
Since many people don’t take readings as often as they should, they don’t take precautionary measures to control their blood sugar and as a result their health may suffer. Diabetes is the leading cause of kidney failure, non-traumatic lower limb amputations, and new cases of blindness in the U.S. It is now the seventh leading cause of death in America.
The Google contact lens project is generating lots of interest, with nearly 5,000 shares and comments on a Google blog post about the project. Comments show the frustration with current methods of glucose testing. Reader reaction to the project has been extremely positive with great interest from diabetes patients.
However, Otis states, “there’s a huge amount of work left to do,” and, of course, the technology still needs to be tested and proved accurate and safe to win FDA approval.
Google says it doesn’t intend to produce and sell the medical device it has built. Instead, it wants to find partners that will use the technology to develop next-generation medical devices and vision products.
Researchers also see a lot of other potential applications for the contacts, including the next frontier of information display. Can you imagine reading your email off the front of your eyeball?
Image courtesy of Google