Google’s latest moonshot is a smart contact lens that diabetics can use to monitor their blood sugar levels.
Led by Google’s Brian Otis and Babak Parviz, the project envisions a painless, non-invasive, and accurate way for people suffering from diabetes to keep their blood sugar level under control. Currently, that involves painful and inconvenient blood tests that patients have to go through multiple times a day. One in every 19 people in the world suffers from diabetes today, and with our increasingly unhealthy lifestyles, that number is likely to go up in the future.
Google’s smart lens works by putting a minuscule sensor, a hair-thick antenna, and a chip the size of a piece of glitter between two contact lens layers. The sensor is in contact with the tears naturally found on the surface of the eye and can take readings of glucose levels once per second. The lens can communicate with an external device, and receives the power it needs wirelessly, storing it in a tiny capacitor.
For now, the technology is in an early stage, but Google hopes to add more functionality to the smart lens, including a warning system based on LEDs. The lens could incorporate a minute light that could flash to warn the user about changes in their blood sugar levels. According to Brian Otis talking to re/code, this could happen when the user closes their eyes, while in the rest of the time, the tech remains invisible.
They may appear to be a prop out of a sci-fi flick, but actually smart lenses are not a new concept. As TechCrunch notes, there are similar devices in development from other companies, such as the Sensimed Triggerfish, a smart lens designed to monitor changes in ocular pressure for glaucoma patients.
Google appears to have adopted the idea of Babak Parviz, who conducted research on a blood sugar monitoring lens when he was working as a professor at the University of Washington. In fact, Parviz collaborated with Microsoft Research for the project back in 2011, though it’s not clear what contributions, if any, Microsoft had in the development of the smart lens. Here’s a video showcasing Parviz’s work with Microsoft Research.
Why is Google developing a smart lens for diabetes patients? The Mountain View giant has a medical research subsidiary in Calico, but medical devices are a new foray for Google. However, this initial application may be a gateway for general use smart lenses. Babak Parviz was initially interested in putting displays into lenses, but his idea was met with skepticism in the past. Now that Google is in charge, no idea is too wild. The company already puts a virtual display in the field of view of Glass users, and in the future, smart lenses could provide a more personal computing experience.
For now, Google is working with partners to bring the first smart lenses to market and with the FDA to obtain all the needed approvals. The company has not provided a timeline for commercial release, but typically medical devices go through lengthy clinical trials and approval processes before they are green lighted for general use.