Smart contact lenses put tiny screens over your eyes

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

Why is this important: While smart glasses are often touted as a must-have part of our augmented reality future, a handful of companies are taking things in a different direction – focusing instead on bringing intelligence into contact lenses.

Drive the news: Saratoga, Calif.-based Mojo Vision announces advanced smart contact lens prototype.

  • There’s still some time to go before it’s ready to sell its devices, and is quick to point out that this is a milestone, “not a product.” He hopes to build hundreds of prototype units over the next year.
  • “It’s a test platform,” says Steve Sinclair, who worked at Motorola, HP and Apple before joining Mojo five years ago as senior vice president of product and marketing.

Eventually, Mojo aims to sell to athletes and others who would benefit from instant, direct access to information – ultimately even mainstream consumers.

  • But initially, the company is focusing on those with low vision thanks to conditions such as retinitis pigmentosa.
  • Expectations for the first commercial product are modest: to build a product that can be sold and get FDA approval. “You don’t have to sell hundreds of millions of units or even a million,” Sinclair said.

How it works: A monochrome green screen and a handful of sensors are housed in a rigid lens, similar to modern hard contacts.

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

The big picture: Mojo Vision isn’t alone in finding smart contacts.

  • Tech giant Google has invested in developing lenses that can be used to measure blood sugar, although this has proven tricky.
  • Other big names have also explored the field, including Samsungjust like startups such as Innovega.

Between the lines: Contact lenses have some advantages over glasses, such as being more discreet, but also have many challenges due to their size. Everything from screens to batteries needs to be built on an even smaller scale.

  • Mojo has managed to attract considerable investor interest, having raised $205 million from venture capital firms such as 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.

Practice : I recently got to try out Mojo’s technology by holding a prototype on a stick close to my eye (as well as donning a VR headset for a simulation of the experience).

  • The technology allows, for example, to read a prepared speech and control the information using only the eyes, which makes it an invisible TelePrompTer.

Mojo has also demonstrated how the eye can control a cursor.

  • In a 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 rigid lenses before, and even the not-so-smart variety takes some getting used to.

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