Remember Google Glass? The doofusy headsets that enabled super-nerds to snap photos simply by blinking their eyes? It was one of Google's many unmitigated failures, and not just because it looked so stupid on anyone who dared wear it in public. Rather, Google Glass caused a widespread freak-out because it was disturbingly easy for wearers to surreptitiously capture photos and video of people around them, without their knowledge or permission. Facing an onslaught of criticism over privacy concerns, Google halted production less than a year after Glass hit the market.
The big G said it wasn't giving up on Glass and promised a complete redesign, and we haven't heard much since. Now it looks like it's set its sights on a much smaller, inconspicuous wearable: a contact lens. And while this tiny piece of optical tech will certainly solve the embarrassing glasshole problem, the creepiness factor looms larger than ever.
Google's research began innocently enough...
Google's first patent application for a contact lens was approved way back in 2014, when it was still in the eye (!) of a public relations shit-storm over Google Glass. The headsets were being banned by restaurants, bars, theaters, and sports events, and Google was preparing to take them off the market altogether. Unveiling an even weirder wearable at such a moment seemed like a massive PR miscalculation -- until you realized what the lens was actually designed for.
On its blog, Google excitedly outlined that the mysterious contact lens was not some newfangled eyeball camera, but rather a device aimed at helping people with diabetes, capable of constantly monitoring blood sugar levels via the glucose in tears. The announcement successfully shifted attention away from the Glass disaster to a new project, one that would put an end to painful finger-pricking for millions of people.
Since then Google has partnered with the pharmaceutical giant Novartis to get things moving, and has also begun developing yet another type of lens to restore the eye's natural autofocus for patients with age-related long-sightedness. Neither device has hit the market yet, but the latter will reportedly enter human-testing trials this year, and Google's even patented the packaging for it.
... But of course it didn't stop there
It would've been silly to assume Google would pass up the opportunity to further develop the technology to turn our eyes into cameras. The company made headlines again this month with a new patent application for an "intra-ocular device" -- a tiny gizmo (pictured above) that would be surgically implanted into your eye. According to the document, it would not only be capable of correcting poor vision over time as your eyes age, but would have some other special functions baked in, too -- the ability to connect to other wireless devices, charge via transmitted radio energy, and snap and store photos. Hmmm… sound familiar?
Will shrinking the camera down to the size of a contact lens solve all the problems that plagued Google Glass? Aesthetically, sure -- but as unsightly as the headsets were, you could at least tell if someone was wearing one. There's nothing more unnerving than being on the other side of a stranger's camera, but you couldn't hide a device as obvious as Google Glass in, say, a locker room or movie theater. But when that device is surgically implanted onto an eyeball, detecting whether someone is wearing one -- or if it's actively recording images at any given moment -- becomes significantly more problematic.
Now Google has competition in the contact-lens race
If you're concerned, it gets worse: Google is far from alone in this quest to advance optical technology. Both Samsung and Sony are developing their own contact lens-based concepts. According to a recently revealed Samsung patent application from 2014, the South Korean conglomerate may be hard at work on a lens that would allow you to take photos by blinking. It would connect to your smartphone and project images onto your eye via a small display -- put two and two together, and it's not crazy to imagine a future where we'll be receiving texts and notifications on our eyeballs.
Similarly, just last month, details of Sony’s contact-lens project (pictured above) were uncovered, and it appears to be the most ambitious and advanced of the bunch. The device allows you to view images and video with the blink of an eye, and to record video of what you're seeing. Not only that, it will incorporate aperture control, zoom, stabilization, and focus control. If this thing comes to pass, it'll make your iPhone camera seem like a dinosaur.
Creepiness aside, the technology is incredibly exciting
Despite the privacy implications of all this, there's no denying that having a camera on your eyeball would be cool as hell. Capturing anything and everything you're seeing means no more "pics or it didn't happen" moments, or toting around a clunky camera on vacation. And as Jody Medich of Singularity University told us, tech-equipped contact lenses are the future of virtual reality. They'll not only allow us to watch what star quarterbacks and superstar musicians are seeing in real time as they play and perform, but will also be critical components for augmented-reality systems.
Just look at Magic Leap. Never heard of it? It's an under-the-radar, Google-backed "mixed reality" startup that's developing some truly mind-bending virtual- and augmented-reality tech. It just filed a whole bunch of new patent applications, including a VR headset that would incorporate a contact lens (pictured above). The company is mum on details, but Recode predicts it will help automatically calibrate your eye's focus in tandem with a larger headset so that virtual "objects" appear as real to you as physical ones.
While Google may be ahead of the pack, there's no telling which company will actually be the first to deliver a camera-packed contact lens to the public. And the more important question is this: which one will be the first to convince us that it won't turn us into a civilization of super-creeps?
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