The Setbacks and Promises of Smart Contacts Continue to Ebb and Flow
An idea that seems like science fiction, smart contact lenses face daunting technical and production challenges that call their commercial feasibility into question.
Smart contact lenses bring the basic wearable information of smart glasses even more directly into a user's visual field. While smart contact lenses have been a research subject for years with numerous promising prototypes, unsolved challenges have limited their development, both within universities and companies.
Mojo Vision's now-suspended Mojo Lens prototype. Image used courtesy of Richard Peterson/CNET
In this article, we’ll assess the promise the smart lenses, some of the roadblocks to adoption, and new research bolstering this technology.
Smart Contacts Hold Promise for AR and Biometric Monitoring
Smart contact lenses sit directly on the cornea of the eye and use various technologies, such as sensors, accelerometers, and display hardware, to bring an immersive AR/VR experience or measure certain biometrics from tears based on metabolites, enzymes, vitamins, salts, and proteins. Smart contact lenses are often proposed in healthcare for simple, real-time biometric monitoring—for instance, to monitor glucose levels.
The working principles behind a stretchable, transparent smart contact lens that approximates glucose levels from tears. Image courtesy of Frontiers in Medicine (Click to enlarge)
Compared to bulky head-mounted displays (HUDs), smart contact lenses may also offer a lighter, more immersive AR/VR experience. Prototypes of these lenses can overlay information on the real world, providing users with directions, messages, or other information without having to look at their phones or other devices.
The Struggles of Smart Contact Companies
Despite the promise of smart lenses, the companies that have pursued this idea have been met with significant difficulties.
In 2014, Alphabet's subsidiary Verily proposed a smart lens for glucose monitoring. Intended to help diabetics constantly monitor their blood sugar levels through their tears, the lens included a wireless chip and miniaturized glucose sensor embedded between two soft layers of lens material. A wireless antenna, thinner than a human hair, acted as a controller to communicate information via RFID to a wireless device.
Despite ample media attention and backing from Google’s parent Alphabet, Verily announced that it would suspend research into its smart contact lenses in 2018 because there wasn't enough evidence to correlate tear glucose and blood glucose.
Verily's glucose-monitoring smart contact lens. Image courtesy of Google
In Jan. 2023, another promising startup in the space, Mojo Vision, announced difficulties of its own. The company, initially focused on smart contacts for augmented reality (AR), created a prototype called Mojo Lens that included a 4,000-pixel-per-inch "screen" with onboard power and communications. The lenses would communicate directly with a neck-worn device that would act as the companion computer connecting to mobile devices for GPS and wireless connectivity.
But this year, Mojo revealed its plans to pivot from developing smart contact lenses to focusing solely on the microLED display tech the company built for the Mojo Lens. Mojo Vision will lay off 75% of its workforce with this transition.
UNIST Uses 3D Printing for AR Contact Lenses
Despite the challenges of commercializing functional smart contacts, researchers from the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST) recently made a significant step forward in 3D-printed smart lenses.
The printing process used by UNIST researchers. Image courtesy of Advanced Science
Using a meniscus-guided 3D printing technique, the team found a cost-effective way to scale smart lens production. The technique evaporates crystallized Prussian blue, a dark blue chemical compound, in a meniscus formed between the printing nozzle and the printing substrate. By precisely controlling nozzle movements, the researchers used this crystallization process to form micropatterns on curved lens surfaces, effectively creating a manufacturing process for smart contact lenses.
The researchers believe this 3D printing process process will enable them to develop smart contacts that implement AR-based navigation. This would allow users to see a navigational field appear over the real world, opening new possibilities for games like "Pokemon Go" that mimic an AR-like experience.