Google has invented a new smart contact lens with an integrated camera. The camera would be very small and sit near the edge of the contact lens so that it doesn’t obscure your vision. By virtue of being part of the contact lens, the camera would naturally follow your gaze, allowing for a huge range of awesome applications, from the basis of a bionic eye system for blind and visually impaired people, through to early warning systems (the camera spots a hazard before your brain does), facial recognition, and superhuman powers (telescopic and infrared/night vision). In related news, Google Glass is publicly available today in the US for one day only (still priced at $1500).
This new smart contact lens would have a tiny CMOS camera sensor just below your pupil, control circuit, and some method of receiving power wirelessly (more on that later). Because an imaging sensor, by definition, has to absorb light, it wouldn’t be transparent — but it could probably be color matched to your iris, so that your eyes don’t look too freaky.
A diagram of Google’s smart contact lens with integrated camera [Image credit: Patent Bolt]
As you can probably imagine, there are some rather amazing applications if you have two cameras embedded in your contact lenses. You can’t do much in the way of image processing on the contact lens itself, but you could stream it to a nearby smartphone or head-mounted display (i.e. Google Glass), where a more powerful computer could perform all sorts of real-time magic. Google suggests that the cameras might warn you if there’s oncoming traffic at a crosswalk — useful for a normal-sighted person, but utterly invaluable for a blind or partially sighted person. For me, the more exciting possibilities include facial recognition (a la Terminator), and abilities that verge on the super or transhuman, such as being able to digitally zoom in and infrared thermal night vision. (Read: What is transhumanism, or, what does it mean to be human?)
Beyond the medical- and consumer-oriented applications, you can also imagine the possibilities if police were equipped with contact lenses that could spot criminal faces in a crowd, or a bulge under a jacket that could be a concealed weapon. Oh, and the most exciting/deadly application of them all: Soldiers with smart contact lenses that alert them to incoming fire, provide infrared vision that can see through smoke, real-time range finding for more accurate sniping…
A contact lens display in a rabbit’s eye (way back in 2011)
This invention, from the Google X skunkworks lab, comes in the form of a patent that was filed in 2012 and was recently published by the US PTO. Earlier this year, Google announced that it was working on a smart contact lens for diabetics that provides a real-time glucose level reading from your tears. As far as we can tell, there’s no timeline for real-world trials of either variety of contact lens — but we can tell you that the technology to create such devices is very nearly here. Way back in 2011, a smart contact lens with an LED display was trialed in the lab.
Moving forward, there are some concerns about power delivery (there’s no space for a battery, of course, so it has to be beamed in wirelessly), and whether it’s wise to have a wireless device implanted in a rather sensitive organ, but I don’t think these will be game-breaking problems. For now, we’re talking about fairly chunky contact lenses that are best suited to laboratory testing — but it shouldn’t be more than a few years until real, comfortable smart contact lenses come to market.