Google zooms in on smart lenses
(c) Financial Times
by Richard Waters in San Francisco

Google is aiming to take a lead in an area of “wearable” health devices where Microsoft once hoped to be a pioneer, as it tests a contact lens designed to help diabetics track their blood sugar levels in the blink of an eye.

The prototype device, revealed late on Thursday, analyses the glucose levels in a wearer’s tears. Google said it hoped the idea would one day save millions of diabetics from the need to take frequent blood samples to track their condition. However, it conceded: “There’s still a lot more work to do to turn this technology into a system that people can use.”

Microsoft said nearly three years ago that it was conducting research with the University of Washington into the same idea. The professor involved in that project, Babak Parviz, is now behind the Google lens project, and headed Glass, the “smart” glasses that Google has said will go on sale this year.

Google’s move into medical diagnostics follows an outbreak of interest in the technology world in health-related “wearables”, or devices designed to help improve fitness and health. So far, most of these have been designed to track sleep patterns or general health, for instance by counting the number of paces walked each day, rather than to analyse bodily fluids.

The Google prototype is made up of a small wireless chip and a glucose sensor embedded between two layers of soft contact lens material. The elements “look like bits of glitter, and an antenna thinner than a human hair”, it said. The internet company added that it was exploring the idea of including tiny LED lightbulbs that would light up as a warning if a person’s glucose level moved outside a prescribed range.

Other companies have also sought to use contact lenses as a form of health monitor. Sensimed, a company in Switzerland, advertises lenses that monitor the shape of an eyeball to identify the risks of glaucoma.

Wristband devices are also quickly evolving, with new sensors being added to track the wearer’s biorhythms. Basis Science, a start-up in San Francisco, sells a $199 watch that tracks heart rate, monitors changes in sweat levels and logs body temperature.

Google has already made ambitious moves into wearable computing with Glass, and healthcare with a new venture called Calico, though the contact lens represents the first overlap between the two fields.

Talking last year about the potential in contact lenses, Mr Parviz said that the company believed it would eventually be able to put all the functionality of its Glass device into a soft lens.

Mr Parviz and Brian Otis, another researcher on the project, said in a blog post thatone in 19 people suffer from diabetes, creating a huge need for easier monitoring tools. “Although some people wear glucose monitors with a glucose sensor embedded under their skin, all people with diabetes must still prick their finger and test drops of blood throughout the day,” they wrote.