Imagine the Google Glass headgear, which currently makes some camera-shy onlookers nervous, shrinking down to near-invisibility—say, into a super-thin transparent layer that sits on the cornea. Google certainly has, as we now know from a recently published patent filing from October 2012.
The notion of smart contact lenses itself isn’t particularly new. Earlier this year, in fact, Google introduced the “moonshot” idea of an eye-worn lens embedded with a wireless chip for health monitoring.
But this latest concept could be way smarter than that, as it would—in theory—allow wearers to snap photos with just the blink of an eye.
Here’s Looking At You, Kid
Back in January, Google announced its Google X experimental lab was testing a glucose-reading contact lens for diabetics. The project had nothing to do with Google Glass, the tech giant claimed. And yet, it was hard to ignore that Glass founder Babak Parviz was a co-founder on the contact project.
Parviz is also listed as a co-inventor in the newly disclosed Google patent filing brought to light by Patent Bolt—likely No. 20140098226, titled “Image Capture Component On Active Contact Lens.” He’s similarly listed on several other related patents.
The “image capture component” is exactly what it sounds like: a camera. The idea is to embed a minuscule camera right on or in the lens that would be controllable through blinking gestures. According to the filing, it would be “configured to generate raw image data corresponding to a gaze of a wearer of the contact lens….”
In other words, when the user’s gaze shifts, the view of the camera would follow right along without compromising the wearer’s vision. In some cases, it might even take the place of sight. For instance, blind pedestrians using Google’s smart lenses could get a warning—like a voice alert from their Android smartphone—when they approach a busy intersection.
The camera would work in concert with a control circuit and a sensor—whether a photodiode, a pressure sensor, a conductivity sensor, a temperature sensor, an electric field sensor or a micromechanical switch. The sensor would determine the eye’s orientation and status, which could be key for other functions.
Taken together with Google’s other related patents, the company seems to be looking at advanced eye-tracking that can trigger functions in, say, an Android phone, Google Glass, smart television, gaming or audio system, or car navigation.
If this invention ever comes to market—and that’s a huge “if”—we might see people turning pages in their ebooks by just blinking, or flipping through their music library by fluttering their eyes.
That all sounds great, but it won’t work without power, and you can’t stick a battery pack on a contact lens. To tackle this, Google figures a separate transceiver could transmit power wirelessly, or the sensors could somehow generate the necessary energy. Of course, anything can sound cool on paper. The big question is whether users would feel comfortable with having a power source or receiver on their eyeballs.
Well, that’s one of the big questions.
In the past, variations on eye control typically depended on hi-definition cameras pointed at the user. But this approach takes the opposite tack, by building the sensors and cameras into the lenses themselves.
This could allow for an unprecedented level of accuracy. If it works well, and if it ties in with existing and emerging technologies, then it could genuinely change quite a few games—fields from medical to law enforcement and military. The stakes could be high for individuals as well.
The first adopters would probably be tech enthusiasts pining for cutting-edge human-to-computer gesture control—or harboring deep-seated Six Million Dollar Man bionic-eye fantasies. But think of what it could do for people suffering with limited mobility or sight impairments.
A primary issue with this appliance, however, could have to do with those miniature camera components. This is, after all, a world in which Google Glass wearers get targeted for attacks. And the system, as proposed, would be capable of facial recognition. If people are uncomfortable with face-worn cameras pointing at them, how will they feel if teensy, undetectable cameras show up in contact lenses?
It’s very possible they may never have to face that scenario. Tech companies often file one-off patents for all sorts of things that never see the light of day. On the other hand, this is no random occurrence. Google has applied for at least seven related contact lens patents, which may suggest that Parvik and his company are serious about making Google smart contacts a reality.