Mar 30, 2022 - Technology

Smart contact lenses put tiny screens on your eyes

a smart contact lens being held in between two fingers

Image: Mojo Vision

A small Silicon Valley startup is announcing Wednesday that it is close to having a working prototype of a contact lens capable of showing basic information such as driving directions using only eye movements to control the display.

Why it matters: While smart glasses are often touted as a fixture of our augmented-reality future, a handful of companies are taking things in a different direction — focusing on putting smarts into contact lenses instead.

Driving the news: Saratoga, California-based Mojo Vision is announcing an advanced prototype of a smart contact lens.

  • It's still some time away from being ready to sell its devices and is quick to point out this is a milestone, "not a product." It hopes to build in the low hundreds of prototype units over the next year.
  • "It's a platform for testing," says Steve Sinclair, who worked at Motorola, HP and Apple before joining Mojo five years ago as its senior VP of product and marketing.

Eventually, Mojo aims to sell to athletes and others who might benefit from instant, heads-up access to information — ultimately, even mainstream consumers.

  • But initially, the firm is focusing on those who have low vision thanks to conditions like retinitis pigmentosa.
  • Expectations for the first commercial product are modest: build a product that can be sold and secure FDA approval. "It doesn't have to sell hundreds of millions of units or even a million," Sinclair said.

How it works: A monochrome green display and a handful of sensors are built into a rigid lens, similar to modern hard contacts.

  • The computing work, meanwhile, is handled by a nearby neck-worn computer that can be hidden under a shirt and communicates using a proprietary wireless technology. Even low-energy Bluetooth uses too much power.
  • Mojo packs a lot of technology into the lens, including a tiny processor, microLED display and battery as well as the sensors needed to detect eye movement.

The big picture: Mojo Vision isn't alone in pursuing smart contacts.

  • Tech giant Google has invested in trying to develop lenses that can be used to measure blood glucose, though this has proven to be tricky.
  • Other big names have also explored the field, including Samsung, as have startups such as Innovega

Between the lines: Contacts have some advantages over glasses, such as being more discreet, but also bring lots of challenges due to their size. Everything from displays to batteries has to be built at an even smaller scale.

  • Mojo has managed to attract a significant amount of investor interest, having raised $205 million from venture firms including NEA and Khosla Ventures as well as a host of strategic investors including Amazon's Alexa Fund, Google's Gradient Ventures, HP Tech Ventures and Motorola Solutions.

Hands-on: I recently was able to try Mojo's technology by holding a prototype on a stick close to my eye (as well as by donning a VR headset for a simulation of the experience).

  • The technology allows one, for example, to read a prepared speech and control the information using only ones eyes, making for an invisible TelePrompTer.

Mojo also demonstrated how the eye can control a cursor.

  • In one demo I was able to press play, pause and fast forward on a basic music player.

Because the contact lens was on a stick, I couldn't judge how comfortable it was to wear. But I've worn hard lenses before, and even the not-so-smart variety take some getting used to.

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