Seeing eye to I(t)

On: November 3, 2017
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About Tsjip van der Nat


What became of the bionic contact lens?

Since the digital display was introduced users have dreamt of breaking it free from its four encapsulating walls. Numerous attempts, from projected to integrated and even curved or rimless screens, have all been tried and tested but have failed to prove a truly permanent solution. The average person’s access to the digital realm today is mostly limited to a computer, phone or–as of late–a television. This has resulted in most people being locked to our screens on a day to day basis: we get our news through a screen, our social activity is interwoven with social media displays and most of the work we do is on a screen. The screen, in a way, now functions as the only gateway to the digital, and augmenting our environment with a similar access seems like the logical step in opening our eyes and bringing us back to reality. This is a  pursuit which is in a way very similar to the narrow-sighted man getting spectacles  and after this, trying to free himself of his rimmed existence. A solution to both problems might look more alike than you would think.

Since the unveiling of its earliest plans, schematics and patents, the bionic contact lens has sparked a lot of interest  in  the tech world. Its apparent potential feeding into the imagination of many a critic has resulted in a lot of positive speculations and accounts. The smart contact lens showcases a seemingly natural progression from using our eyes to view displays, to displaying what we want to see on our eyes. Formerly a tool for the near- and farsighted to put the world in focus, it is now presented as a means with which to experience the digital world. Even though not being a new concept, current technical breakthroughs have moved the digital contact lens from a farfetched dream to an imminent realistic possibility. This begs to ask the question where the development has halted and why. How come we aren’t all wearing smart contact lenses right now, using a Heads Up Display for our information needs?

A smart contact lens is a bionic device that, through an antenna, powers LEDs to generate a display using Fresnel lenses. Its uses range from Virtual Reality augmentation to improving near- or farsightedness and medical purposes. The power source thus has to be wireless and all its components  have to be biocompatible. It is situated on the iris surrounding  the pupil and is thus not directly in sight. But to understand how the smart lens came to be, we must first look at what it came from, evolutionary speaking, just like the age-old question of which came first(the chicken or the egg) is answered with an ‘almost-chicken’ laying a chicken-egg which then hatches the first real chicken. Looking into how a ‘chicken’ differs from an ‘almost-chicken’ can be quite valuable in a better understanding of both. In a very similar way definitions and products go through an evolutionary process over time, contingent on use and adaptations. Some of its aspects remain while others don’t, and it is in this shedding of functionalities that we get to see the defining properties of a given.


For quite some time the frontrunner in digital eyewear was a company called Innovega which has been producing the iOptik since 2013. Having presented a demo model at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in that same year, and promising a functioning one the next, they boasted to overtake and replace Google Glass’ position in the smart eyewear industry. At the time it was being sold as an augmented reality device and solved a lasting problem the smart glasses were having with projecting digital objects in the environment by adding a pair of contact lenses. Human eyes have a problem with focusing on images projected panoramically right in front of them, but through the use of the contact lens,  iOptik could now implement the digital into your surroundings. In this way they have managed to project both digital objects in the air as well as a user display that moves along with your eye movement.

Having received funding from the National Science Foundation as well as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Innovega was on its way  to conquer the digital eyewear market. Sadly though, between their presentations at CES 2013 and 2014 and the present, they have come up short. At the time their system was already Android-compatible and their business plan was not to start an app ecosystem of their own, but to attempt to tie into existing platforms. They had been negotiating with big-name companies such as Lenovo, Oakley and Electronic Arts, but not much has come of it. However, in March 2017 Innovega has received a seed funding by a Chinese company called Tencent for 3 million dollars, leading to the assumption that the Asian market might be more gadget-friendly and a lot more susceptible to a geeky visor.  In trying to free the display, the iOptik’s necessity for thick-rimmed glasses seems still to be too much of a limiting factor for its success.



As mentioned earlier, an obvious contender for comparison is the Google Glass spectacles. Which are an optical head-mounted display designed in the shape of a pair of eyeglasses developed by a sub-company of Google called X. The product has thus far not left their beta testing Explorer Program because it has been noted to scare people and its advantages have not been apparent enough to the general public. It has even sprung a new derogatory term, ‘glasshole’, meant to describe people who  socially sabotage interactions by refusing to take their spectacles off.

These critiques of the Google Glass all seem like bumps in the road that are easily overcome by a digital contact lens on its way to display integrated sight. And this is something Google has realized too, but their angle of tackling this avenue of innovation is medical. An interesting development to note is that the medical world has not shared the general populace’s hesitation to adapt the Google Glass but welcomingly embraces it. Surgeons and doctors have been cited to name numerous uses for the technology during operations or other medical procedures.

Verily, an independent subsidiary of Google’s Alphabet umbrella tasked with Life Sciences, has been researching the ability to measure glucose levels through secretions from one’s tear ducts. This technology would be a welcome relief to diabetics because it would greatly simplify their hourly testing needs, which currently still require the drawing of blood or a permanently intravenously-installed monitor. Unfortunately for Google, the validity of these tear-tests have been inconclusive and medical research has halted the process of further technological innovation.


A more commercial approach to developing the digital contact lens is by focusing on its ability as a camera. Snapchat and Instagram are overtaking Facebook as a social media platform through the use of pictures and video, and their success is tied to people’s abundant access to high tech cameras in their smartphones. What if you could photograph and record directly from your eye with a single blink? This question is of particular interest to companies like Samsung and Sony, which have both filed patents for devices claiming to be capable of doing this. Where other producers have been trying to improve the user’s own outlook on the world, this allows the user to share their outlook with others.

Most of these patents and plans have not seen a lot of development over the last couple of years, but this  does not mean that their companies have lost interest. A smart contact lens was and still is of major interest to tech giants. If you take into account the new business models where user-produced data aggregation is the actual product, you can understand their vigor to get this product onto the market. By integrating a display into our permanent vision we are locking one of our senses into the ‘Internet of Things’. Think of the data that all the users would generate on a daily basis: what we look at, who we look at and where and how we look at things can now all be compiled, analyzed and optimized. The digital dimension interwoven with reality in a visual way is a promising development with far-reaching consequences. As nearsighted person myself, I can’t wait to lift the veil on both the blurred and the digital world through the same contact lens.


Sources used:

Web Articles
Journal publications:
  • Glauser, Wendy. “Doctors Among Early Adopters of Google Glass.” Canadian Medical Association. Journal: CMAJ; Ottawa Vol. 185, Iss. 16, (Nov 5, 2013): 1385.
  • Pedersen, Isabel, and Ellison, Kirsten. “Hiding in plain sight: The Rhetoric of Bionic Contact Lenses in Mainstream Discoursess” International Journal of Cultural Studies. pg 1-15.
  • Senior, Melany. “Novartis signs up for Google smart lens.” Nature Biotechnology 32, 856 (2014)
  • Sukhwani, Girish, and Kalra, Dinesh, and Punjabi, Deepak. “Bionic Contact Lens.” International Journal of Student Research in Technology & Management Vol 1 (1). pg 65-71


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