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Could Google's Smart Contacts Refocus Google Glass?

Could we one day see Google Glass sans the glass?

The revelation that Google is creating smart contacts raises the obvious question of whether the technology could one day meld with the company’s other eyewear product, Google Glass. In other words: Could we one day see Google Glass sans the glass, with digital images superimposed in front of our pupils via contacts?

In an interview this week, project lead Brian Otis stressed that the contact research is “completely separate” from Google Glass. But he also noted that Glass project founder Babak Parviz, with whom he worked for years at the University of Washington, advises the contact lens project.

Today, it’s difficult to wear Google Glass without being noticed, and sometimes mocked. Placing a tiny wearable device on someone’s eye could potentially be a lot more discreet, though some privacy advocates might see that as a downside.

Parviz made headlines as early as 2009 for producing contact lenses embedded with a tiny LED. At the time, he wrote about the potential for using contacts for heads-up displays and augmented reality applications. In a September 2009 piece for IEEE Spectrum, he said:

To turn such a lens into a functional system, we integrate control circuits, communication circuits, and miniature antennas into the lens using custom-built optoelectronic components. Those components will eventually include hundreds of LEDs, which will form images in front of the eye, such as words, charts, and photographs. Much of the hardware is semitransparent so that wearers can navigate their surroundings without crashing into them or becoming disoriented. In all likelihood, a separate, portable device will relay displayable information to the lens’s control circuit, which will operate the optoelectronics in the lens.

These lenses don’t need to be very complex to be useful. Even a lens with a single pixel could aid people with impaired hearing or be incorporated as an indicator into computer games. With more colors and resolution, the repertoire could be expanded to include displaying text, translating speech into captions in real time, or offering visual cues from a navigation system. With basic image processing and Internet access, a contact-lens display could unlock whole new worlds of visual information, unfettered by the constraints of a physical display.

One of the key challenges of putting displays into contact lenses is that the eye can’t normally focus on something that close. But Parviz made progress on that problem a few years later working with researchers at Aalto University in Finland. They altered the contact to reduce the focal distance and demonstrated that the technology was safe through tests on rabbits, according to a paper in the Journal of Micromechanics and Microengineering.

Parviz told the BBC at the time: “Our next goal is to incorporate some predetermined text in the contact lens.”

Other researchers have done work in this broad area, too. Innovega of Bellevue, Wash., pairs contact lenses with special glasses to create an augmented reality experience, technology it has shown off for the last several years at CES. The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, UC San Diego and Darpa have worked on contact lenses that allow wearers to “zoom in on points of interest” a la Terminator.

So whether or not Google X is looking in this direction now, it seems a possible avenue of future research, if not a probable one.

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