Researchers at Google's secretive X Labs have revealed a prototype contact lens that could monitor blood sugar levels and send the results to the patient's mobile phone.
Brian Otis gingerly holds what looks like a typical contact lens on his index finger. Look closer. Sandwiched in this lens are two twinkling glitters pecks loaded with tens of thousands of miniaturized transistors.
It's ringed with a hair-thin antenna. Together these remarkable miniature electronics can monitor glucose levels in tears of diabetics and then wirelessly transmit them to a handheld device.
"It doesn't look like much, but it was a crazy amount of work to get everything so very small," he said before the project was unveiled.
During years of soldering hair-thin wires to miniaturize electronics, Otis burned his fingertips so often that he can no longer feel the tiny chips he made from scratch in Google's Silicon Valley headquarters, a small price to pay for what he says is the smallest wireless glucose sensor ever made.
The idea that all of that monitoring could be going on passively, through a contact lens, is especially promising for the world's 382 million diabetics who need insulin and keep a close watch on their blood sugar.
The prototype, which Google says will take at least five years to reach consumers, is one of several medical devices being designed by companies to make glucose monitoring for diabetic patients more convenient and less invasive than traditional finger pricks.
The contact lenses were developed during the past 18 months in the clandestine Google X lab that also came up with a driverless car, Google's Web surfing eyeglasses and Project Loon, a network of large balloons designed to beam the Internet to unwired places.
But the actual research on the contact lenses began several years earlier at the University of Washington, where scientists worked under National Science Foundation funding.
Researchers also had to build in a system to pull energy from incoming radio frequency waves to power the device enough to collect and transmit one glucose reading per second.
The embedded electronics in the lens don't obscure vision because they lie outside the eye's pupil and iris.