How Google's smart contact lens works

HAYLEY TSUKAYAMA
Last updated 05:00, January 20 2014
NEW INSIGHT: Google is working on a smart contact lens prototype that monitors glucose levels in tears.
Google

NEW INSIGHT: Google is working on a smart contact lens prototype that monitors glucose levels in tears.

Wearable devices are already bringing technology much closer to you than you ever may have expected, but Google's just 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 email straight into your skull - at least not yet. This project is working to tackle one of the biggest health problems facing the country today: diabetes.

Given the wariness around wearable devices and their capabilities for data collection, the idea that the company would get that much closer raises the question: how will Google handle this data? Or, for that matter, how can any commercial company stepping into a new world of collecting sensitive medical data deal with the security concerns?

It's a question that Google's clearly thought a lot about, said Joseph Lorenzo Hall, chief technologist at the Center for Democracy and 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 servers.

"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's is introducing - it's still just a prototype - houses a sensor between two layers of lenses 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 your 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.

Given the sensitive nature of the data, Hall said, Google has also said that it will make sure any data transferred from the lens will be insulated against anyone who might want to change its readings - 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's a little like a circuit-breaker to prevent the lens from overheating.

The National Diabetes Education Program estimates that 382 million people and 25.8 million Americans have diabetes.

That means that every day - multiple times a day - over 8 per cent of people in this country have to take time out of their day to prick themselves to test their blood levels. And because the process is so uncomfortable and difficult, it's becomes hard for a lot of people to properly manage the disease.

Or, as Google project co-founders Brian Otis and Babak Parviz said in the post: "Although some people wear glucose monitors with a glucose sensor embedded under their skin, all people with diabetes must still prick their finger and test drops of blood throughout the day. It's disruptive, and it's painful. And as a result, many people with diabetes check their blood glucose less often than they should."

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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 reliably. 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.

But Google, tapping Parviz's deep knowledge of biotech, has come up with this solution. 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 said that it is in discussions with the Food and Drug Administration to figure out how to bring the product to market in the future.

Hall said that the potential to improve a way to monitor diabetes is exciting, but still noted that Google's security is not the only system that users have to worry about. If it interacts with other company's apps

"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."

 - The Washington Post

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