Will Google’s smart contact lenses kickstart a digital health revolution?

Andrew Fazekas
Will Google’s smart contact lenses kickstart a digital health revolution?

Looks like Google wants to move beyond just helping us find low-calorie dessert recipes and wants to help us maintain our health too.

The Internet giant announced it is teaming up with the Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis to develop a smart contact lens that would not only correct certain types of blurred vision in the elderly, but also monitor glucose levels for diabetics.

The search giant claims the new device, packed with tiny microchips and microelectronics, could help restore focus for eyeglass wearers. Also in the works is a slew of tiny camera sensors that would be sandwiched between two clear contact lens layers that could even help the legally blind navigate.

But these digitally-enhanced contact lenses will even be able to directly measure sugar levels in the wearer's tears and wirelessly transmit the data via a tiny embedded antenna that is thinner than a human hair to a linked smartphone. Researchers hope that this will eliminate the need for regular, painful blood tests like those people with diabetes have to endure on a daily basis.

And the Google team hopes to take this biomedical technology a step further to actually alert the user if problems arise. If glucose levels drop below or rise above a certain threshold, a red light indicator embedded along the edge of the smart lens would warn the user discretely along their periphery of vision.

The research team is now looking to gain FDA approval to start clinical trials soon, and the lenses may hit the market in about five years.

Google has been pushing hard the last few years to go beyond just giving us search results and has set up a rather secretive research and development lab – dubbed Google X – that has already made headlines for showcasing its experimental self-driving cars, balloon-powered Internet and the soon to be released Google Glass.

But one of the biggest trends expected in the coming years centres around digitally monitoring our health. Just a few weeks ago, Google announced it was following the lead taken by Apple, Samsung and other digital giants in launching its own health monitoring program, called Google Fit, that will be a clearinghouse for metrics gathered from wearable fitness trackers and health apps.

From sensor-filled fitness clothing that follow heart rates and blood pressure readings in athletes to headbands that measure brain waves so we get better sleep, wearable devices appear to be the wave of the future.

Rumors have also been swirling for more than a year that Apple will be jumping into the fray with the mythical iWatch that will link with its just-announced Healthbook application for the iPhone. Fuelling the rumors for a Cupertino-based smartwatch focused on health has been a long list of new hires at biomedical sensor technology start-ups.

While wearable, digital, health-centred devices that are on the market now like the Jawbone Up or Misfit Shine help us count calories burned and steps walked and can motivate us while making overall fitness fun, next-generation devices will offer a much more detailed picture of our health. Devices will be able to continuously follow a wide variety of bodily functions like our blood pressure, hydration and nutrition levels, heart rate, respiratory rate, oxygen saturation and weight.

One day patients will have the ability to collect scientifically-accurate biometric data on their own time and provide it to their healthcare providers through their smartphones so that they can monitor vital signs and manage chronic diseases like never before.

It appears that Silicon Valley may hold the key to transforming our health care system by enabling more personalized and customized health solutions many of us have dreamed of.

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