Screens and cameras in the eyes, and other promises of the lenses of the future | Technology
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There are some augmented reality lenses that, in addition to correcting vision, have microLED screens the size of a grain of sand to consult all kinds of information, from the trails on a ski slope to the pace at which you run in a race. It is the ambitious project that Mojo Vision is working on, a startup from the United States that has been improving its prototypes since 2015. More and more companies and scientists are trying to give contact lenses applications that seemed like science fiction decades ago, such as recording videos or the ability to diagnose and treat diseases.
“In the short term, it seems like a futuristic proposal, but 20 years ago we did not even imagine many of the technological advances we have now,” says Ana Belén Cisneros del Río, deputy dean of the College of Opticians-Optometrists of Castilla y León (COOCYL), in reference to the Mojo Vision project. Daniel Elies, specialist in cornea, cataract and refractive surgery and medical director of IMO (Institute of Ocular Microsurgery) Miranza Group in Madrid, does not consider that this type of contact lens can be implemented in the short term, “especially due to cost issues” .
Among the companies interested in manufacturing glasses with augmented reality, is Magic Leap. Sony, meanwhile, applied a few years ago for a patent for eyelid-controlled video recording lenses, and Samsung for lenses equipped with a camera and the ability to project images directly onto the user’s eye. Meanwhile, some researchers are trying to create robotic lenses capable of zooming in and out of objects (with a zoom effect) by opening and closing the eyes, and others are trying to make them see in the dark, something that could be very useful in the military field.
Manufacturers use brittle, opaque components to make smart contact lens electronics work, according to research published in the journal Science Advances. Something that, as the authors point out, could block the user’s vision and damage the eye. For this type of contact lens to come onto the market, in addition to overcoming multiple technical challenges and providing clear vision, it is essential that they do not pose any risk to eye health. “They are still a foreign body that we introduce into the eye,” says Cisneros, who insists on the importance of researching the development of materials that are biocompatible with the corneal surface.
If there is one field where scientists and tech giants are trying to harness the potential of contact lenses, it is health. A review published in the journal Advanced Materials Technologies indicates that sensor lenses can be used to non-invasively monitor many diseases and conditions. “The presence of biomarkers in tears will lead to diagnostic contact lenses to help detect and treat systemic and ocular diseases, such as diabetes, cancer and dry eye syndrome,” says Cisneros.
The expert predicts that the lenses could monitor eye pressure, monitor glaucoma (a disease that damages the optic nerve of the eye) and even obtain images of the retinal vasculature for the early detection of hypertension, stroke and diabetes. For people with the latter disease, lenses capable of measuring blood glucose levels may be helpful. Something that companies like Google and Microsoft have been working on for years. Other scientists have tried to go further and create ones that change color to alert about changes in the glucose level.
One of the limitations of these types of lenses is that they can usually only detect a single biomarker in the eye, such as glucose or lactic acid, according to the review published in the journal Advanced Intelligent Systems. The authors believe that developing lenses capable of detecting multiple chemical components in real time would make them “more powerful as biomedical tools.”
These lenses could also be useful for the treatment of some eye pathologies. In fact, several investigations underline their potential as portable medical devices to analyze the eye’s response to some medications and evaluate surgeries. “Drug-delivering contact lenses could offer more precise dosing than traditional eye drops, increasing the residence time of a drug on the ocular surface and reducing side effects,” adds Cisneros.
It’s still too early to know what innovations will be incorporated into contact lenses in the coming decades, but the possibilities are endless. Elies does not rule out that in the distant future they will be equipped with sensors or a camera capable of recording internal information from the eye and, through a screening based on artificial intelligence, they can make diagnoses or send certain alerts. “Perhaps they incorporate antisepsis systems to avoid infections or color changes to indicate a possible deterioration of the same,” he concludes.
The potential privacy risks of smart lenses
Putting on contact lenses capable of recording or monitoring our eye movements can raise some privacy concerns. Samuel Parra, a lawyer specializing in technological law, differentiates the impact of this type of lens on two different subjects: on the one hand, on who wears them and, on the other, the others, “that we can be seen through them”.
According to European regulations, these lenses cannot collect any type of personal information from the wearer without their prior consent. For example, data about your behavior or your tastes. “Their manufacturer or operator could not deploy a functionality to know if the user who wears them, who knows that he is a 25-year-old man, looks more at blonde or brunette girls and, from there, deduce a preference,” says Parra. .
But the problem could arise with the privacy of other people: “Should we have the right to know that we are dealing with a person with one of these lenses that may be carrying out an analysis of our personality or recording our personal image?” In 2019, the European Data Protection Supervisor issued a report regarding the use of smart glasses. In it, he showed his concern about the use of this type of device without other people noticing. In the case of contact lenses, according to Parra, something similar could happen.
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