Smart Contact Lens Targets Vision Improvement for Those With Impairments

Emily Willingham

January 15, 2021

A contact lens that operates like a smartphone in the eye was the breakout but not-yet-ready-for-prime-time health tech at Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this year. The device wields computing and imaging power that its developers hope will restore functional vision for people with visual impairments.

Ashley Tuan

The company, a California startup called Mojo Vision, took home the Last Gadget Standing prize at CES, awarded the win through online voting by attendees. Their catchphrase, according to Ashley Tuan, Mojo Vision's vice president of medical devices, is "invisible computing." The computing is invisible because instead of being a smartphone in the hand or smart glasses on the face, the contact lens sits invisibly on the eye and delivers the same functionality as these other devices.

The lens, which is still in development, projects text, image, and video information onto the field of vision. For people with visual impairments, the product will enhance visual function, said Tuan. It can sharpen edges and contrasts, which the company predicts will "elevate vision" for people with conditions such as glaucoma and macular degeneration. Like other smart devices, it also will give directions, forecast the weather, and tell the user what neighbors think about the nearest restaurant.

The Mojo lens

The lens will be packed with sensors that track not only visual inputs but also eye motion. Tuan said that this function will eventually offer clinicians a way to track, for example, recovery from head trauma as eye movement normalizes or to diagnose and monitor progression of diseases related to eye movements.

 

Tuan added that the company hopes to equip a lens with a camera that faces inward, to the back of the eye, for monitoring the retina. With that kind of tool, she said, "we can monitor the blood vessels and the state of health of the circulation."

Tech like this could offer a lot of advantages, said Matthew Feng, MD, an ophthalmologist in private practice at Price Vision Group in Indianapolis. But, he cautions, many practical considerations likely remain to be resolved.

As a cornea specialist, Feng said one of his concerns is whether or not a lens bearing all of these bells and whistles could lead to corneal hypoxia, a risk with wearing regular contact lenses for more than 8 hours or so. "There's a lot of tech built into the Mojo Lens, and you have to worry that oxygen transmission might decrease further and 8 hours might even be too much," he said. The long-term risk includes nerve damage and corneal stem cell deficiency. If the tech really is "invisible" and forgettable, people might accidentally fall asleep wearing it, which also could cause problems.

He also expressed some skepticism about the utility of projection as a solution for conditions like glaucoma. Even with the best imaging available, signaling in the brain might still be compromised, he said, something a contact lens, no matter how advanced, might not be able to solve.

The developers are likely aware of these issues, said Feng, and regardless of their success, "it's very heartening to know that people are out there researching this."

Digital Health Conference and Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2021. January 13, 2021.

Emily Willingham is a freelance journalist and scientist with a bachelor's degree in English and a PhD in biology. She reports on health topics, including infectious disease and hepatology.

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