Home / Opinion / Columns /  Contact lenses are being wired to replace our phone screens

Walk down any street and you’ll see people craning their necks to look at their phones. But in the not-too-distant future, we’ll probably just stare at digital information hovering over the world in front of us, taking in a blend of the digital and real worlds, thanks to augmented reality (AR). In Saratoga, California, engineers are working to realize such a future, churning out prototypes of smart contact lenses stuffed with tiny circuits, batteries and tiny displays.

When I visited Mojo Vision’s office, I held its AR smart contact lens about an inch in front of my eye to try it out, shifting a cursor around the space in front of me by moving the lens. I used a virtual reality (VR) headset to test its eye-tracking technology and demo apps, directing a small cursor simply by moving my eye. I could read from a teleprompter that showed a series of words as I moved my eye, and looked around the room to see arrows pointing north and west, designed to help with outdoor navigation. To ‘click’ on one of the apps dotted around a circle that hovered in front of me, I simply looked at a small tab next to the app for an extra second. Numbers and text appeared in my upper field of view, showing, say, my cycling speed, or displaying the weather, or giving me flight information. To close the app, I’d look away for a full second.

Technologists have talked for years about what next after mobile devices replaced desktops as our big gateway to the internet. Meta chief Mark Zuckerberg is placing his bets on the metaverse, an immersive virtual world entered via a headset. But the bigger shift will be to AR, where glasses or contact lenses display online feeds blended into our view of the real world. It’ll aid multitasking. Phones will become more like mini servers that coordinate our wearable devices like earbuds, watches and eyewear.

Mojo Vision’s lenses are perhaps one of the most ambitious hardware projects in Silicon Valley. The company had to develop its own chemicals and plastic compounds that would allow an eyeball to breathe through a lens loaded with electronics. The lens was noticeably thick, and large enough to extend beyond the iris to cover parts of the whites of the eyes. It includes nine titanium batteries of the sort used in cardiac pacemakers and a flexible circuit narrower than a human hair. A slightly convex mirror bounces light off a tiny reflector to magnify the display by simulating a telescope. From a few feet away, that tiny display looks like a pinprick of light. But when I looked through the lens more closely, I could watch a video that looked large enough.

People could watch TikTok videos on this some day, but Mojo Vision wants the lens to have practical uses. It is also working on a lens for visually impaired people that shows glowing digital edges overlaid on objects to make it easier to see those objects. It’s also testing different interfaces with companies who make running, skiing and golfing apps for phones, for a new kind of hands-free display of activity. Sinclair says that barring regulatory holdups, consumers could buy a Mojo lens with a bespoke prescription in less than five years. That may be an ambitious timeline, considering other AR projects have been delayed, or, like Google Glass, didn’t live up to their hype.

Google parent Alphabet also failed to deliver a smart contact lens for medical use, but overall, Big Tech firms have driven VR and AR development. Apple is working on lightweight AR glasses which it plans to release later this decade. Sometime next year, Apple is also expected to launch a mixed-reality headset. Facebook currently dominates VR device sales with its Quest 2 headset, but it’s also racing to launch its first AR glasses in 2024, as reported.

Why is augmented reality taking longer? Because it melds digital elements with physical objects in a view that is constantly moving. That’s a complex task and requires a lot of processing power. Even so, our desire to keep at least one foot in the real world means we’re likely to spend more time in AR eventually.

The big question is how to balance being present in one’s real-world life while constantly seeing digital information. Today, it takes a few seconds to take out a phone, open an app and carry out a task on its screen. In the future, we’ll be able to enter an app simply by looking at it for an extra second. That will throw up all kinds of thorny issues around addiction and how we interact with the world around us.

A Mojo Vision executive said this worry came up years ago when the iPhone was being developed: “I can’t say how we at Mojo are going to completely mitigate that. But the trend is moving in that direction, that people are going to have instant access to information." Whether with contact lenses or glasses, the human eye will point to a world swimming in more digital information than ever before. Our brains will have a lot to get used to.

Parmy Olson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology.

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