First human tests of smart contact lenses

Computerised “smart” contact lenses that reverse age-related long sightedness or measure glucose levels for people with diabetes may be moving closer to reality


The first human tests of smart contact lenses, under development by pharmaceutical giant Novartis and Google to help restore the eye’s natural autofocus, are planned for next year.

The smart lenses are designed to restore natural vision in people with presbyopia, or age-related long sightedness, who can no longer read without glasses.

Under an agreement signed with Google in 2014, Novartis is also developing smart contact lenses to help people with diabetes track their blood glucose levels.

In development for the past three years, with the aim of improving diabetic patient management, these smart contact lenses are designed to monitor glucose levels in people with diabetes via non-invasive sensors, microchips and other miniaturised electronics embedded within the lenses.

The smart lenses are designed to restore natural vision in people with presbyopia, or age-related long sightedness, who can no longer read without glasses

Microscopic manufacturing

The technology was originally created by electrical engineers at the University of Washington, who used microscopic manufacturing techniques to combine a flexible, biologically safe contact lens with an imprinted electronic circuit and lights.

Now working in partnership with Alcon, the eyecare division of Novartis, Google is building glucose-monitoring contact lenses with a tiny pinhole that allows tear fluid to seep into a wireless sensor. The idea is the lenses then sync data via a microscopic antenna with a mobile device such as a smartphone app.

While updates on the project have been scarce, in March Google was granted a patent for a contact lens with an embedded chip. The company then revealed in August that its life sciences division, which has been working on a prototype of the lens, would become a standalone Alphabet company.

Sergey Brin, Google co-founder and Alphabet president, says: “Three years ago we embarked on a project to put computing inside a contact lens. While I am delighted at the progress the project has made, I could not have imagined the potential of the initiative it has grown into – a life sciences team with the mission to develop new technologies to make healthcare more proactive.”

Earlier, tech firm EP Global Communications (EPGL) challenged Google to confirm it was “up to speed with EPGL in the smart contact lens revolution”. EPGL claims to have several patents pending in the arena and the ability to place microelectronics into silicone hydrogel contact lenses for mass-market production without dramatically changing the current manufacturing process.

With efforts gaining momentum, it seems the race is now on to turn glucose-monitoring contact lenses from a concept into a reality.