Google is developing a smart contact lens

Using a sensor, chip and antenna, the smart lens could monitor a diabetic's glucose levels

Moving beyond Glass, Google is working on a smart contact lens that would use tiny chips, sensors and antennas to continuously test diabetics' blood sugar levels and make it easier for them to stay healthy.

Google, which said the technology is still in its early phases, is testing prototypes of the lenses and is in discussions with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration about them.

Engineered to measure glucose levels in a user's tears, the lenses have wireless chips and miniaturized glucose sensors that are embedded between two layers of soft contact lens material, according to Brian Otis and Babak Parviz, project co-founders at Google.

"You've probably heard that diabetes is a huge and growing problem, affecting one in every 19 people on the planet," wrote Otis and Parviz. "But you may not be familiar with the daily struggle that many people with diabetes face.... Uncontrolled blood sugar puts people at risk for a range of dangerous complications...including damage to the eyes, kidneys and heart."

They added that because diabetics' blood sugar levels fluctuate throughout the day, they need to test levels often. Most diabetics do so using a finger stick, which can be painful and may dissuade them from doing it as often as they should.

Tears, though, can also indicate someone's glucose levels. The issue has been how to use them.

"At GoogleX, we wondered if miniaturized electronics -- think chips and sensors so small they look like bits of glitter, and an antenna thinner than a human hair -- might be a way to crack the mystery of tear glucose and measure it with greater accuracy," the project founders wrote. "We're testing prototypes that can generate a reading once per second."

They also said researchers are investigating the potential for the lenses to serve as an early warning for wearers. For example, they're figuring out if tiny LED lights can be integrated into the lenses, lighting up to indicate when glucose levels cross above or below certain thresholds.

This may seem like a strange project for Google, a company that made its name and still makes the bulk of its money on being the world's dominant search engine. Google, however, is the same company that is developing Google Glass, a computerized set of eyeglasses.

"I believe this project fits into Google's the long-term strategy," said Patrick Moorhead, an analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy. "This type of 'in-eye' technology is the pre-cursor to having Google Glass directly in our eyes. To many, this is fascinating and inspiring. To others it is creepy and scary."

While this could be a new tool in the fight against diabetes, Moorhead noted that it's research that could also advance Google Glass in a big way.

"With these contact lenses, you have some sort of controller, a power supply, sensors, and a radio," he said. "If you project this forward a few years and add a flexible display, a display controller, and a radio that can talk to your smart watch, then you have Google Glass of the future."

Glass, which is now being tested by a group of early adopters, isn't expected to officially be launched until sometime this year.

The company reported that project leaders are looking for potential partners in the smart contact project to help get it to market. They're also seeking partners that will develop apps to act as the brains behind the glucose measurements and enable the results to be reported to users and doctors.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

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