Google announced its latest moonshot project yesterday, and like most of the ideas cooking in the secretive GoogleX lab, it's crazy futuristic. The company is developing smart contact lenses with sensors that monitor glucose levels for diabetics. That's right, a tiny wireless electronic chip attached to your eyeball.
The tiny chip and a mini glucose sensor are embedded in the contact lens material. Google describes "chips and sensors so small they look like bits of glitter, and an antenna thinner than a human hair." The device, which sits to the side of the pupil and iris so you can still see, is powered by harnessing energy from radio frequency waves. To send alerts, tiny LED lights that could light up to indicate that glucose levels are too high or low. The future is now.
Impressive as the technology is, Google took care in its blog post announcement to stress the project's health implications, not the hardware. Diabetes is a growing problem, with some 382 million people diagnosed worldwide, and one that's very difficult and time-consuming for patients to manage. Researchers have been looking for a better way to monitor glucose other than blood, and tears are a promising solution, if you can collect them. That's where contact lens sensors come in.
Like most of the major tech players, Google's taken a keen interest in the shaping the future of health. This project comes on the heels of its laughably ambitious moonshot, Calico, which has set out to overcome disease, aging, and eventually achieve immortality.
But even more to the point, the smart contact lenses fall right in line with the web giant's grand vision of having eyes everywhere, so to speak. The company recently acquired smart thermostat Nest, which catapulted the Googleverse out of cyberspace and into your physical house. Now the company can continue scooping up data on your personal habits even after you sign offline.
Wearable tech takes it even further. While Nest gives Google the keys to the connected home, projects like Google Glass, and now even more cyborg-esque contact lenses, expands the Internet of Things to include your body. The Internet of People.
The project is definitely the most ambitious of the "quantified self" gadgets crowding the market, especially where the wearable tech and digital health megatrends intersect. Increasingly, it looks like the future of health care will be tiny electronic devices affixed to your body, collecting and analyzing data to help you make healthier decisions.
This is a dream come true for doctors who have been beating their heads against the wall trying to get people to change their behavior—the rather fruitless effort to pivot health care from reactive to preventive. For better or worse, gadgets and apps are now taking the reigns.
There are connected objects measuring everything you do, shaming you for partaking in unhealthy vices, and ratting you out to your doctor. Increasingly, biosensors quantifying the self are accompanied by apps that make lifestyle recommendations based on the health metrics flowing in. Tiny connected wearable computers become your personal trainer, your life coach, your nicotine patch, your mom scolding you for not finishing your peas.
It's easy to imagine this lifelogging trend going too far. Who wants to be that self-aware? Do I really want my watch to start vibrating because my heart started racing when I was talking to that cute guy? And of course you need to be very sure that the personal data being mined is accurate before relying on it to make medical decisions that could literally be life or death. But taken one, careful step at a time the quantified self movement could have a significant impact on the struggling health care industry. Google's thick wallet will help speed up biosensor research already being conducted in academic and medical circles.
Google, for its part, is currently in talks with the FDA about getting approval for its contact lenses. The device is still an early-stage prototype being tested in clinical trials, and the company doesn't expect it to reach consumers for at least five years.