The Science Fiction Future Of Contact Lenses Is Arriving Now

We are all familiar with contact lenses that help people see better. But imagine contact lenses that darken automatically when you step into bright sunlight, or detect diseases and slow down their progression. What about contact lenses that deliver augmented reality? Well, it’s time to stop imagining because things are about to get better as modern times are yielding a significant jump in contact lens technology.

We now live in a world where contact lenses have the potential to detect/diagnose illness, record video, display images, videos, and much more. So, do contact lenses that display information like health monitoring, entertainment, communication exist? That answer is yes, but the FDA approval process for most products is lengthy, and the technology is still arguably half-baked.

Over 45 million people in the U.S. wear contacts, according to the CDC. This represents a significant demographic for potential sales. Plus, the fact that futuristic contact lenses broaden the spectrum for potential buyers with no existing eye conditions is a big win for the contact lens industry.

The future of contact lens technology is even groovier than you may think. Let’s look at some of the exciting things happening in the industry.

Augmented Reality Glasses

Although the first augmented reality glasses were designed for military use, notable companies like Mojo are looking to skip the wearable glasses and jump right to a revolutionary contact lens with some groundbreaking features.

Writing for Forbes.com, John Koetsier reports that Mojo lenses deliver incredible 14,000 pixels per inch packed into a display that sends microscopic-sized beams into the fovea of the eye—the part of the eye with the highest concentration of retinal cones and natural photoreceptors.

Koetsier also reports that the early-stage motives for Mojo's lenses are aimed at correcting vision. Later models will likely include features we have only seen in science fiction movies. Here are the main features that Mojo plans to put inside of their super lenses:

  • Augmented reality
  • Computer vision
  • Micro LED display
  • Thin-film solid-state battery
  • Inertial measurement sensors

Although Mojo has a design for power-harnessing lenses and liquid solutions that charge the contact lenses as the user sleeps, its lenses will most likely get their power from an external computing pack called a puck or relay.

Developing Sophisticated Technology for Everyday Use

The innovative Mojo lenses will also include designs such as contrast enhancement that will highlight objects like curbs and table edges for users who suffer from poor vision. Heads-up information and technical specs for nurses and firefighters are just a few of the perks users will enjoy in the everyday world.

Mojo’s idea is to create a concept they call ‘invisible computing’ that will allow for an interactive and helpful UI without putting a computer screen between the user and their surroundings.

The fact that Mojo’s smart contact lenses are invisible provides a solution for challenges met by Google Glass, launched a few years ago. 

In a review published by TheGuardian.com, Samuel Gibbs writes, “Short of the price, which is no small matter, the biggest problem with Google Glass is the reaction of people around the wearer.” Adding, “It feels socially inappropriate much of the time – if not for the wearer, then for their audience.”  

Solar-Powered Contact Lenses

Contact lenses that harness solar power! Is it possible? Absolutely.

Developers from Samsung even have a patent for a power-harnessing technology that captures the power used when blinking and converts it into energy for the lens. Samsung also has a patent for a sensor that detects the biometric information of a user.

Google and its sibling company Verily hold several patents for contact lenses that harness energy. Verily is another company in the race for high-tech lenses with a focus on features like:

  • Monitoring body temperature
  • Monitoring blood alcohol levels
  • Processing images like price tags

InWith Corporation also holds patents for smart lens technology. Partnered with Bausch and Lomb (a major contact lens manufacturer), InWith is developing 3D-flexible microelectronics by using highly biocompatible materials into molded hydrogel materials, calling it ‘smart biology.’

InWith’s technology aims at manufacturing completely normal and soft contact lenses similar to what they are already producing—the only difference is that they connect to your smartphone.

Smart Contact Lens That Can Record Video

POV (point of view) footage isn’t close to its full potential yet. According to CNet.com, Sony has patented the technology for an outward-looking camera lens that records video through what you see. Eyelid camera technology will likely revolutionize action videos and also change the way humans interact with each other.

The Sony patent will differentiate between involuntary and voluntary blinking, so all the user will have to do to hit ‘record’ is blink longer than usual.

Writing for Daily Mail, Clemence Michallon reports that Sony’s lenses will detect and delete dark frames created due to blinking. The user will also have the ability to play the video back on an in-eye screen by using a different eyelid movement.

Michallon adds that Sony lens wearers will also have the power to interact and control the contact lenses with their smartphones while taking photos and correcting blurry images.

Contact Lens That Can Detect Glaucoma

Across the world, glaucoma is the second leading cause of blindness. MayoClinic.org describes the disease as a “group of eye conditions that damage the optic nerve, the health of which is vital for good vision.” Thanks to modern technology, a contact lens that diagnoses and treats glaucoma in patients now exists.

This revolutionary contact lens created by Columbia University Irving Medical Center researchers has the power to detect abnormally high eye pressure that occurs when a nourishing fluid builds up between the iris and the cornea causing damage to the ocular nerve.

Testing for glaucoma is a lengthy process for doctors because eye fluid pressure fluctuates throughout the day. Unfortunately, the conventional quick test of blowing air into the eye yields only an instantaneous and inconclusive test result.

Now approved by the FDA, this futuristic tonometric contact lens is designed with internal sensors that measure intraocular eye pressure by the minute. The data is then transmitted through an adhesive antenna/data recorder straight to the doctor’s computer.

Considering that elevated intraocular eye pressure is the leading cause of glaucoma, this breakthrough technology is a sliver of hope for anyone suffering from the illness.

Contact Lens That Can Diagnose And Treat Diabetes

Because diabetes is an irreversible disease, an aiding contact lens is a breakthrough invention that will help individuals with diabetes monitor their blood sugar levels and avoid going blind from diabetic retinopathy.

Luckily, scientists are on top of the subject matter when it comes to diabetes. The Ulsan National Institute Of Science and Technology (UNIST) has successfully integrated glucose sensors into smart lens technology. It displays the information it captures on an integrated LED display.

UNIST isn’t the only one designing contacts for treating diabetes. A nanostructured contact lens designed by POSTECH is on the front lines of combating diabetes by measuring blood glucose levels and even administering insulin and other treatment medicine for diabetic retinopathy, a disease caused by high blood pressure that damages the eye retina.

Scientists at POSTECH have also helped solve discomfort issues by creating a flexible and clear lens that is highly stretchable.

Contact Lens That Can Provide Healing

A Harvard Medical School affiliate by the name of Theraoptix designed a drug-administering contact lens with the ability to deliver medication directly to the eye over weeks or even months.

A winner of the MIT Sloan Healthcare Innovations Prize, this sandwich design uses a drug-filled polymer film in the middle of the lens that causes the medicine to seep into the patient’s eye without obstructing vision.

The advantage of in-eye medication is that the patient will no longer have to worry about missing doses or forgetting to use their medication altogether—a  mistake that can cause blindness in patients.

Theraoptix's design creates a perfect dosage, whereas medicated eye drops often fall out of the eye when applied. The Theraoptix lens is used for self-administered drugs intended for treating additional eye-related illnesses, including:

  • Macular degeneration
  • Retinal vein occlusion
  • Diabetic retinopathy

Who Else Is Working On Medicinal Contact Lenses?

Johnson & Johnson has an antihistamine-loaded contact lens for slow-release allergy relief.

Scientists at Tohoku University in Sendai, Japan, have also designed a self-moisturizing contact lens that uses electroosmotic flow to prevent dry eyes.

The Queensland University Of Technology has created contact lenses designed to act as a bandage for the eye’s surface. It contains healing properties for conditions like corneal ulcers and persistent surface defects.

Why Aren’t Smart Contacts On The Market Yet?

All of this fantasizing about in-eye technology is entertaining. Sure, the FDA has approved transition lenses and slow-release medicinal lenses for treating eye diseases. But why don’t these companies have their products on the market yet?

Most of the innovative eye lens technology is not yet widely available to the public because making practical/sellable products and getting the FDA to test and approve them for the general public is a marathon rather than a sprint.

The technology is unmistakably there, though, so there’s a good bet that you will be able to wear some smart contact lenses in the not-so-distant future.