High-tech contacts coming soon?

In the run-up to the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas there are always news stories and company announcements of new inventions and innovations designed to push the technical envelope and offer new or improved capability to we, the masses. The concept of wearable electronic devices isn’t new but advances in miniaturization and fluidity of form has opened up some new frontiers. In a pair of examples, that frontier is in the “windows to the soul.” First up, Innovega tries to one-up Google Glass:

Inventive startup Innovega plans to show off a high-tech contact lens next week that will float virtual screens filled with information in front of the wearer’s eyes.

Called the iOptik system, the two-part system depends on special contact lenses that work as a filter to let the human eye focus simultaneously on things very near and far, using rings that route light in different ways into the retina. Part two is a pair of special glasses fitted with tiny projectors that transmit data forward onto the eyeglass lenses.

The contacts allow the wearer to view the projected information, whether it’s driving directions or messages or videos, according to a report on CNET.

This is probably the closest approach to “hyper reality augmentation” that I’ve seen yet. For those unfamiliar with the term, it’s a blending of technological information retrieval and display that basically overlays onto your perception of the world around you. A good case in point would be a device you wear that would allow you to look at an office building and would overlay the names of the companies housed on the given floor you’re looking at. A good “killer app” from my perspective would be a similar device that allowed you to activate a “facilities overlay” and let you see where the electrical and pipes are running in your home’s walls. Them, for those people who are horrible with remembering people’s names, a facial recognition overlay that would float the name of the person you’re looking at over their heads or something.

It sounds great, of course, but there are some nagging issues with both the approach and the specific innovation, here. First of all, the Innovega device consists of 2 things. The first is a set of contacts that allows imagery projected onto them to be focused appropriately into the user’s eyes. This is what allows you to be looking at something 25 feet away and yet still have the display information (which appears to be closer) stay in focus, too. The second is a pair of glasses that serve as the actual projector. Both must be worn to use the system, which means that not only are you sticking a set of contacts in your eyes, you also get to wear glasses. Funny, I thought the whole idea behind contacts was that you didn’t have to wear glasses! In any case, this system represents a problem for many people, like me, who simply can’t get around an aversion to putting contacts in their eyes.

After watching the video at the link, I think there’s also another matter that I can’t quite figure out how they’re getting around. As I was watching the “point of view” video I noticed that when information popped up on the overlay, my eyes immediately flicked over to the display to read it. Of course, if the display is literally attached to my eyeballs, then the information displayed is going to move with my glance. Which means I’ll never be able to put the information in the center of my vision for me to read it. Notice what you’re doing right now in order to read this text. Now stop for a moment on the last word of this sentence and see just how far away from the center of your vision you can actually read something. It’s not far. If the system displays information at the periphery of your vision, it’s going to be pretty useless unless it’s basically pictograms. I’m curious how they’d overcome that.

The second item is also a contact lens but it’s built by a far better-known company and for a completely different purpose. Google’s Contacts project is still a high-tech contact lens but it’s not pushing information into your head, it’s pulling information out.

Wearable devices are already making technology much more intimate than once seemed possible, but Google has kicked it up to a whole new level. The company has announced a project to make a smart contact lens. But this gadget isn’t going to be used to deliver your e-mail straight into your skull — at least not yet. The project is working to tackle one of the biggest health problems facing the country today: diabetes.

The soft contact lens that Google is unveiling — it’s still a prototype — houses a sensor that measures the glucose levels in tears. A tiny pinhole in the lens lets tear fluid seep over the glucose monitor to get regular readings. Right now, the company said, it can get a level reading once every second.

I know a number of diabetics with varying ranges of seriousness of condition. While the monitoring process has improved greatly over the past few decades, it still comes down to pricking their finger, bleeding out a drop or two onto a monitoring device and reading out the number. Based on that number they either inject themselves with insulin or not. The story is right: it’s disruptive to their lives and not particularly pleasant. It’s also not something they do nearly as often as 1/second. Offering a device that can monitor their state with that level of granularity and do so in a manner that’s effectively passive for the user would provide the ability to develop a predictive cycle and allow the user to, perhaps, deliver insulin in smaller amounts and avoid the peaks and valleys in blood sugar. It would also give the user a fairly real-time view into what eating a particular food does to their blood sugar and, maybe, give them input to what they should avoid or moderate.

Interesting advances, both. I look forward to seeing what else they can come up with using these approaches.