Companies have been attempting smart contact lens for years, but two companies are close to success. Here’s what needs to happen to get them in our hands

  • Samsung, Google, and Sony have experimented with smart contact lenses since 2014.
  • Medical technology companies like Mojo Vision and Innovega are currently testing their prototypes.
  • Their first customers are people who are visually impaired and industries that need information in a hands-free environment.
  • We explore the processes and challenges this industry faces to bring this breakthrough technology to market.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: Imagine a world where you look across the street and get directions or see information on your heart rate while cycling without looking down. All could be possible with smart contact lenses, a sci-fi-movie scenario that’s becoming more and more of a reality. Samsung, Google, and Sony have experimented with smart contact lenses since 2014, with hopes of them taking photos and video with a blink of an eye or measuring your glucose levels. And today, dedicated US optics companies are testing their prototypes, some that could display notifications like how your smartphone would or give you timely information without interrupting your focus.

Mike Wiemer: Whether you’re a delivery person or somebody working to put parts together, being able to have those directions in a eyes-up and hands-free environment is important. Surgeons with real-time biometrics of the patient. There are some retail prototypes that we’re looking at. Can someone be able to interact with a customer, or just eyes up in the moment, making eye contact, and yet know that, that thing that they’re asking about, there are actually two more back in the stockroom?

Narrator: This all sounds cool, but we’re still years away from getting these contact lenses into our eyes. Why? It all comes down to the tech, medical approval, and market value. Let’s start with the tech, which has to be really tiny.

Ashley Tuan: If you asked me 10 years ago, I would say that’s impossible for you to put the kind of electronics you’d need in a contact lens.

Narrator: Nanotechnology for smart contact lenses wasn’t readily available until the early 2000s. But even with the technology, implementing it comes with challenges.

Tuan: This concept is straightforward. I think the most difficult part is to figure out, how do you do engineering to put everything together?

Narrator: So, companies have to carefully consider which type of contact lens to use as their base and build the technology from there. Mojo Vision uses a scleral lens with all the technology embedded inside the lens and a wearable neck device as the processor, while Innovega uses a soft lens with a polarizer filter that pairs with glasses that handle most of the technology. But each type of contact lens comes with its own difficulties.

Tuan: We’ve identified that the best contact-lens platform to meet our need is the scleral-lens platform because of the rigidity of it is actually protective to your eye, and it provides the stability once it’s on eye. It’s not popular because it has been difficult to manufacture. Every lens, you can consider it being custom made. So it takes more time to fit the lens and takes more time to make the lens. However, in recent years, scleral lens became more popular again because they realised that now it’s easier to make, now it’s easier to fit.

Narrator: Meanwhile, at Innovega…

Jerome Legerton: We started with a scleral lens, which is a hard shell. The difficulty that was perceived was so great, but then we really saw the value, and it needs to be a soft lens. And that even took us in a different path with the polarizer.

Narrator: After figuring out the manufacturing issues and the tech behind the polarizer, both companies had to make sure their contact lenses were…

Tuan: Superior performance, gas permeable.

Legerton: Biocompatible.

Narrator: Which leads us to the next challenge, medical approval. Since these smart contact lenses are considered a medical device, they need to be approved by the FDA.

Legerton: If we’re making the claim, then we have to prove we do that.

Tuan: You try to figure out if there is anything that could be potentially harmful.

Narrator: After verifying the physical and chemical properties of the lens material through multiple preclinical tests, the companies can move on to clinical trials.

Tuan: And then there’s specific animal testing that you need to do. And those, we are looking at ocular irritation, or you’re looking at skin sensitivity. If everything’s passed, then we can consider for humans on eye testing. Narrator: Currently, this is where both companies are at.

Legerton: But we’ve been conducting a number of the phase two clinicals to verify our design and compare it to other marketed lenses so that we know where it is.

Tuan: We’ll debate what’s the worst-case scenario, and we mitigate the risk to as low as it can be. And then we look at whether it is comfortable, whether the functionality is working as intended, and it has been really incredible experience.

Narrator: The last challenge is effectively introducing this product to the market. A few reasons Google Glass wasn’t popular was because of its high price tag, awkward display, and video-recording capabilities. But Mojo Vision and Innovega are not in a rush to appeal to the masses. They are helping a specific market first and then growing from there.

Legerton: The first customers are the visually impaired. The next customers would be in sports analytics and sports performance enhancement, where people need their hands free, but yet want the information readily available.

Wiemer: Hospitality-slash- entertainment is interested, automobile market is interested, retail is interested. I think what we need to do is demonstrate our ability to deliver and the market’s desire to use it, even on a, relatively speaking, small scale. And if we can do that, we earn the right to continue. And if we continue to earn the right to continue, I think we’ve got a whole new category to explore over, you know, decades or something.

Narrator: Mojo Vision hasn’t come up with a price tag or release date yet, but Innovega says its smart contact lens could receive market clearance by the end of 2021. Its smart contact lens could cost about the same as daily disposable lenses, and its glasses could be anywhere from $US3,000 to $US5,000. But the company expects the price to decrease over time once it can produce larger quantities.

Wiemer: In the years working on this topic, I really believe this, that smart contact lenses are a thing. There isn’t a product that you can go out and buy right now, but I can tell you, there will be.

Michelle Yan: Currently, both companies still need another device to pair with their smart contact lenses, and Innovega even plans to keep their glasses in the long run. But this is the most progress that we’ve seen so far. So, what do you think? Would you wear smart contact lenses? What are some of your concerns? Let us know in the comments, and subscribe to our YouTube channel so you don’t miss the next episode.