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Google Is Making Smart Contact Lenses for Better Health Monitoring

David Smothers January 17, 2014

A late-breaking surprise just came out of the Google camp with the revelation that it’s going to start making smart contact lenses. As in contact lenses with integrated sensors and circuitry. Yep, it's that time in the future. But it might not be what you're hoping for. It isn't the next generation of heads-up display (a Google Glass people would willingly wear in public), rather, it's for sensing.

Many people with diabetes have to vigilantly monitor their blood-glucose levels or they risk major problems like passing out, and in extreme cases, coma or even death. Despite that, pricking your finger a million times a day isn't anybody's picture of a good time, and this often results in people checking their glucose levels less often than they should, which is obviously dangerous because virtually anything (eating, exercise, sweating) can cause a sudden spike or dip.

So, over the years, science has been investigating different ways to monitor glucose besides blood, and one of the most promising-looking targets is tears. The problem is that tears aren't exactly easy to collect, either. Would you rather prick your finger or jab a Q-Tip into your eyeball? "Gee, I dunno, couldn't I just drop something heavy on my toe, instead?" So, Google X, the team that has brought us self-driving cars, Glass, and other "moonshot" projects, came up with the idea of a contact lens with embedded "chips and sensors so small they look like bits of glitter, and an antenna thinner than a human hair." Their words. It sounds crazy, but could it work?

Here's what Google had to say about it:

"We're now testing a smart contact lens that's built to measure glucose levels in tears using a tiny wireless chip and miniaturized glucose sensor that are embedded between two layers of soft contact lens material. We're testing prototypes that can generate a reading once per second. We're also investigating the potential for this to serve as an early warning for the wearer, so we're exploring integrating tiny LED lights that could light up to indicate that glucose levels have crossed above or below certain thresholds. It's still early days for this technology, but we've completed multiple clinical research studies which are helping to refine our prototype. We hope this could someday lead to a new way for people with diabetes to manage their disease."

This is in the very early stages of development, but Google is already in discussions with the FDA, and they're planning on looking for partners in order to bring it to market. The idea of smart contact lenses becoming a reality within (possibly) the next few years is pretty nuts.

You have to wonder where this could go from here. At CES this year we saw roughly seven thousand companies with health-tracking wristbands—most of them ugly and uncomfortable. The kind of metrics you could get from an eyeball would be very interesting, though. Heart-rate would be an easy one, and it could offer the most accurate tracking of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep ever. Still, though, until they can build a display into them that gives us truly integrated augmented reality, our geek-urges will never be satisfied. That's okay though, because this is a very cool first step.

[via Google]

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