By Adrian Galbreth
For years, sci-fi films have featured eyewear technology that enables people to see amazing things, from laser glasses to contact lenses with special displays, but in recent years that technology has edged ever nearer.
Now, one of the world's biggest companies is hard at work on a new type of contact lens that could change the medical industry forever, specifically the way in which diabetics manage their condition.
In collaboration with eyewear innovator Professor Babak Parviz and his Bio-Nanotechnology Lab at the University of Washington, a team at Microsoft's Computational User Experiences group led by Desney Tan are developing a contact lens that provides the user with a fully configurable display of digital information.
Although it could eventually be used for a huge number of purposes, initially the team is making lenses that can allow people with diabetes to monitor their blood sugar without stopping for a finger prick, a technique which can be time-consuming, fiddly and painful.
Mr Tan, a senior researcher at Microsoft Research, recently revealed to the diabetes website A Sweet Life that the product may not be too far away.
He explained that taking the lens from the research stages to people's eyeballs would not be easy, but said the sheer ambition of the project is what made it so appealing.
At a high level, there are several challenges that need to be addressed first. The team needs to understand how contact lenses are manufactured today so that they can project what changes to the process would be necessary to embed technology into them.
"Since this is a device people may use, there is a huge amount of work to figure out how they easily interact with it and the ecosystem of devices and tasks that may be connected to this," he pointed out.
Mr Tan added that the experts are currently envisioning a way to automatically display important information, such as abnormal glucose or insulin alerts, in the lens wearer's view.
He said the functional contact lens provides people with the ability to have displays that cannot be pulled out and looked at, and that require people to take their attention away from the real world.
The expert did reassure people that they are not as "socially intrusive" as wearing the goggles that are state-of-the-art in the field right now.
Although his current project is to build a lens to monitor glucose levels for diabetes, Mr Tan told the website his team is always exploring other uses of this technology and has "only begun to scratch the surface" of the opportunities that exist with this type of platform.
"The most important challenge is really in the deep exploration of all the things not yet imagined with this platform, and new platforms enabled by this new-found capability to create other technology of this form," he added.
He also detailed the relationship between the experts at Microsoft and Washington University, noting that the Computational User Experiences group at Microsoft Research, which has expertise in mobile interfaces and medical sensing, directly collaborates with Professor Parviz and his Bio-Nanotechnology group at the university.
The latter facility is in itself one of the world's top labs working on engineering and fabrication of very small, flexible devices, including medical sensors, and so many innovative minds are coming together as part of the research, he explained.
Mr Tan told the website that so far the experts have mostly conducted bench tests, as given the sensitivity of the application space, as well as the human eye, much needs to be finalised and tweaked before moving to in-situation trials.
However, he offered hope to diabetes patients around the world in search of a new way to monitor their condition and safeguard their health: "At this point, the team is working hard to make this technology a reality and hope to be able to push this out to consumers as soon as everything is ready."
by Alexa Kaczka