Google’s smart contact lens: What it does and how it works

Wearable devices are already making technology much more intimate than once seemed possible, but Google has kicked it up to a whole new level. The company has announced a project to make a smart contact lens. But this gadget isn’t going to be used to deliver your e-mail straight into your skull — at least not yet. The project is working to tackle one of the biggest health problems facing the country today: diabetes.

Given the public wariness about wearable devices and their capabilities for collecting data, allowing the company to get that close raises the question: How will Google handle this data? Or, for that matter, how can any company stepping into a new world of collecting sensitive medical data deal with the security concerns?

It’s a question that Google officials have clearly thought a lot about, said Joseph Lorenzo Hall, chief technologist at the Center for Democracy & Technology, who was briefed on the lens before the company’s Thursday announcement. Hall said that Google assured him that the data would not be added to the company’s banks of personal information gathered from other services.

“The data will never hit Google’s servers,” he said. “That’s a forward-thinking affirmative claim that they’re making. That is important.”

The soft contact lens that Google is unveiling — it’s still a prototype — houses a sensor that measures the glucose levels in tears. A tiny pinhole in the lens lets tear fluid seep over the glucose monitor to get regular readings. Right now, the company said, it can get a level reading once every second. The lens also features a tiny antenna, capacitor and controller so that the information gathered from the lens can move from the eye to a device — such as a handheld monitor — where that data can be read and analyzed. It will draw its power from that device and communicate with it using a wireless technology known as RFID.

A San Diego court commissioner said he found no proof that Cecilia Abadie had Google Glass turned on while driving. (Reuters)

Given the sensitive nature of the data, Hall said, Google has also said it will make sure any data transferred from the lens cannot be manipulated — something that could have potentially fatal consequences if patients inject the wrong amount of insulin. Google has also worked to build in safeguards against other kinds of problems, such as a piece that is similar to a circuit breaker to prevent the lens from overheating.

The National Diabetes Education Program estimates that 382 million people worldwide and 25.8 million Americans have diabetes. That means that every day — multiple times a day — more than 8 percent of people in this country must take time out to prick themselves to test their blood levels.

“It’s disruptive, and it’s painful,” Google project co-founders Brian Otis and Babak Parviz said in the blog post. “And, as a result, many people with diabetes check their blood glucose less often than they should.”

Physicians and medical researchers have thought about ways to measure glucose through the fluid in the eye for years, but have had trouble figuring out how best to capture and analyze those tears. Some companies, such as EyeSense, have developed their own products to embed sensors in the eye to measure these levels, while other companies, such as Freedom Meditech, have explored measuring glucose levels through the eye by using light.

Parviz — who once led the Google Glass team — and Otis were colleagues at the University of Washington before moving over to Google’s department for developing “moonshot” projects, Google[x]. The company is still in the early days of the smart contact lens project, but officials said that it is in discussions with the Food and Drug Administration to figure out how to bring the product to market.

Hall is excited about the product but said that if the device interacts with apps from other companies, consumers will have to trust their security, too.

“One thing I do worry about is mobile security itself. It is a miasma, and the app that’s developed to use with this is probably going to be made by someone else,” he said. “Whoever is making that app will have to answer those questions. But they haven’t been answered yet because we haven’t gotten that far down the line.

Now This News reports on Google's latest innovation-- smart contact lenses. (Now This News)
Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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