Google Glass meets “smart” health

Tue, 06/18/2013 - 9:24am
Stephanie Carmichael, Contributor

Google Glass is a huge step forward, but trendy eyewear isn’t everything. Sometimes, you gotta think about health.

“Smart” eyewear has just collided with smart vision correction — and no, I’m not talking about the prescription-based versions of Google Glass that are in development. Researchers have taken the concept of Google Glass and applied it to soft contact lenses. These not only bear the same technological features of Google Glass but also provide medical benefits as well (more on that in a moment). And it all happens on a tiny lens — like the kind many of us accidentally tear or drop onto the carpet every other month. If I wasn’t already worried about the fragility of increasingly thin and expensive technology, I am now.

These contact lenses are a little different than your average pair, of course. They’re outfitted with a light-emitting diode and a highly conductive blend of graphene and silver nanowires. But it’s all mounted on regular, off-the-shelf soft contact lenses (so they could probably work with any brand), and they look exactly alike. What they can do, though, is much different. Researchers hope that in conjunction with integrated biosensors, these lenses could monitor health by assessing the chemistry of the eye’s tear film. They could also design ones that filter light as a way to counter some vision problems.

Now, as someone who wears contacts so she doesn’t have to sport dinosaur-sized specs in public, this intrigues me. Imagine — the invention of wearable computerized, social technology could usher in a whole new wave of medical breakthroughs.

It’s a little early to be saying that for sure, of course, but it is exciting. Given how bad my vision is now, I worry about what it will be like 10 years from now. I stare at computer, television, and mobile screens an awful lot, too, but I haven’t gotten around to buying a pair of glare-resistant glasses. And I probably don’t blink enough or take frequent breaks. Wearing frames has actually given me headaches, too (though to be fair, so do a dozen other things), which is why contacts are so much more convenient for me. But if there were vision-correcting, technologically “smart,” glare-resistant contact lenses ... now that would be cool.

Some of this technology already exists, sort of. Switzerland-based company Sensimed produces electronic lenses that monitor eye pressure in glaucoma patients while other researchers have indeed built contact-lens displays. But these are typically nontransparent and uncomfortably rigid, unlike these “smart” soft contact lenses.

In fact, the team tested the lenses out on rabbits and found that after five hours, the animals hadn’t shown signs of eye irritation (they weren’t rubbing their faces), and their eyes didn’t turn bloodshot. That’s a good sign of how wearable they are — rabbit eyes are similar in size to humans’ — but bad news for anyone who’s against animal testing. I’m not explicitly, but I know my sister is and would have a hard time embracing these Google Glass-like contacts if she knew what facilitated their production. She refuses to buy animal-tested makeup, for example. However, my friend works with rabbits all the time in a lab, and I hear horror stories of all the terrible things that happen in the name of medicine. So in a way, animal testing is just a normal part of science — however moral or immoral that may be.

So knowing that researchers are testing these lenses out on animals makes me a little uncomfortable, but at least the rabbits didn’t exhibit a negative response to wearing them (the display consisted of only one pixel, for now). And I’m still excited for the future of Google Glass-like eyewear, especially when it comes to offbeat applications like this. Lenses that filter out light to improve vision might not sound like a big deal — normal contact lenses correct vision, too, after all — but that could only be the beginning.

I have a feeling wearable computers are only a small part of it.


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