Electronic Contact Lens Research

Electronic Contact Lenses Promise Future of Advanced Augmented Vision

We’ve heard of experimental contact lenses that can non-invasively monitor the blood sugar levels of diabetes sufferers before, but where prior research relied on chemical reactions inducing color-change in the lens, new joint research by the University of Washington and Microsoft Research aims to incorporate electronics into such lenses to report blood sugar levels wirelessly. Gizmag spoke to Desney Tan, Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research Connections, to find out what sets this work apart.

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Desney Tan with a colleague, working on the Functional Contact Lens

In a promotional video from Microsoft Research, Professor Babak Parviz of the University of Washington summarizes the research. “We’ve been able to put a glucose sensor on a contact lens and show that it can detect glucose at levels that are found in the tear film,” he explains. “Our broader group has actually designed and built small radios that can interface with this glucose sensor and send out information wirelessly.”

Sufferers of Type 1 diabetes have to monitor their blood sugar levels several times a day. It’s a painful procedure requiring the piercing of the skin with a spring-loaded needle. With what Microsoft cites as an example of a Natural User Interface (NUI), it hopes its “Functional Contact Lens” may one day remove the need for this invasive means of monitoring.

Though the Functional Contact Lens aspires to a more advanced means of reporting than mere common change, the means of detection also differs from previous research. “There are now various groups working on non-invasive measurement of tear glucose,” Desney Tan told Gizmag. “Professor Zhang’s lab has been largely using nanostructured optical probes embedded in hydrophilic hydrogen lenses, and they’ve had some successes recently.”

Instead, Tan explained, this research uses an enzyme-based electrochemical process sensitive to glucose. “As the enzyme interacts with the tear fluid, specific measurements are made by observing the change in current measured by bio-compatible electrodes on the contact lens.”

Microsoft hopes to get this technology to market “as soon as everything is ready”, and, if successful, it’s likely that the first models will report information wirelessly to a local device, which “could be an augmented smart phone,” Tan suggests.

This will be achieved with tiny, flexible electronics embedded into the lens itself incorporating control circuits, communication circuits, the glucose sensors themselves, and the antenna. “This required a whole new engineering process, since traditional integrated circuit processes would not work,” Tan explained.

It’s hoped that subsequent models will enhance the NUI-ness of the user experience by removing the need for a secondary device, and instead displaying information directly in the contact lens. Tan told us that current challenges to overcome involve the efficiency of the wireless communications, “bio-compatibility”, the practicality of the design with respect to potential mass production, as well as issues with the glucose sensor itself.

Bio-compatibility is clearly an issue when a (admittedly low-powered) electronic device comes into direct contact with the human eye – both in terms of safety and comfort. As such, the Functional Contact Lens is not yet read for what Tan calls “in-situation trials”. Tan is a passionate evangelist for the potential of NUI and augmented reality. The team at Microsoft Research and the University of Washington “has only begun to scratch the surface of the opportunities that exist with this type of platform,” he enthuses. “The most important challenge is really in the deep exploration of all the things not yet imagined with this platform, and new platforms enabled by this new-found capability to create other technology of this form.”

Medical Sensing via a Contact Lens

Having succeeded in making computers faster, smaller, and cheaper, technologists are now focused on making computing more accessible—more effortlessly integrated into the user’s life—enabling more people to do more interesting things. Over the last few years, Microsoft has been working on creating natural user interfaces (NUIs) that make interacting with computers seamless, so that people can focus on completing their everyday tasks, building better relationships, and living better lives, even—or especially—when they’re on the go.

The Functional Contact Lens project is one such NUI endeavor. A collaboration between Professor Babak Parviz and his Bio-Nanotechnology group at the University of Washington and Senior Researcher Desney Tan and his Computational User Experiences group at Microsoft Research, the project aims to build a contact lens that provides the wearer with a fully configurable display of digital information.

In the initial phases of this project, the team designed and built prototype contact lenses that included an embedded LED display, a wireless data communication link, and a power harvesting unit. While difficult problems remain—for example, adequately focusing the light and dealing with the jitter of the contact lenses—this proof-of-concept is highly encouraging.

Recently, the team took advantage of the fact that the lens comes into contact with bodily fluid—tears, to be precise—to explore applicability of the lens for continuous medical sensing. Tests show that blood-glucose levels can be measured via special sensors embedded into the lens. This could be a boon to patients with Type I diabetes, allowing them to monitor their blood-glucose levels without having to jab their fingertips several times a day. Moreover, the lens would monitor glucose levels continuously, a major improvement over the snapshot readings from periodic finger-stick blood draws.

Initially, the lens would record information on blood-glucose levels for review by patients and their physicians. Ideally, however, the lens will be perfected to automatically display alerts of abnormal glucose levels directly in the wearer’s view. Such alerts would prompt the patient to inject insulin or eat a high-glucose snack—and would fulfill the NUI goal of providing seamless computing interaction that improves quality of life.

While the project team continues to explore uses of a fundamentally new type of natural user interface based on the functional contact lens, they have developed a number of novel methods for building devices such as sensors, radios, and antennas and integrating them onto a thin, flexible substrate. These methods are of significant interest to researchers in the fields of augmented reality, continuous health, and activity monitoring, and provide inspiration to Microsoft engineers who are developing future NUI technologies.

Babak A. Parviz, an associate professor at the University of Washington whose research was seen on our pages before, wrote an article for IEEE Spectrum discussing the work of his team to develop electronic contact lenses to provide continuous monitoring of glucose, augmented vision, and potential other implications of the technology. Parviz also gives a rundown of the challenges involved in creating functional in-lens displays that users can focus on at such a short distance.

nn343ssdd Electronic Contact Lenses Promise Future of Advanced Augmented VisionFrom the article:

The glucose detectors we’re evaluating now are a mere glimmer of what will be possible in the next 5 to 10 years. Contact lenses are worn daily by more than a hundred million people, and they are one of the only disposable, mass-market products that remain in contact, through fluids, with the interior of the body for an extended period of time. When you get a blood test, your doctor is probably measuring many of the same biomarkers that are found in the live cells on the surface of your eye—and in concentrations that correlate closely with the levels in your bloodstream. An appropriately configured contact lens could monitor cholesterol, sodium, and potassium levels, to name a few potential targets. Coupled with a wireless data transmitter, the lens could relay information to medics or nurses instantly, without needles or laboratory chemistry, and with a much lower chance of mix-ups.

Three fundamental challenges stand in the way of building a multipurpose contact lens. First, the processes for making many of the lens’s parts and subsystems are incompatible with one another and with the fragile polymer of the lens. To get around this problem, my colleagues and I make all our devices from scratch. To fabricate the components for silicon circuits and LEDs, we use high temperatures and corrosive chemicals, which means we can’t manufacture them directly onto a lens. That leads to the second challenge, which is that all the key components of the lens need to be miniaturized and integrated onto about 1.5 square centimeters of a flexible, transparent polymer. We haven’t fully solved that problem yet, but we have so far developed our own specialized assembly process, which enables us to integrate several different kinds of components onto a lens. Last but not least, the whole contraption needs to be completely safe for the eye. Take an LED, for example. Most red LEDs are made of aluminum gallium arsenide, which is toxic. So before an LED can go into the eye, it must be enveloped in a biocompatible substance.

Source : http://www.microsoft.com/en-us/researchconnections/science/stories/functional-lens.aspx

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