Telescopes in contact lenses: a brilliant idea after the fiasco of Google Glass

Yesterday at SXSW, the world’s grooviest ‘interactive festival’, the head of Google X – the company’s mysterious research lab – finally admitted it. Google Glass was one gigantic embarrassment. Or, as Astro Teller put it, ‘We allowed and sometimes even encouraged too much attention for the programme’. You don’t say. For a glimpse of the sort of attention Google didn’t want, just look at the photograph above – some poor sap on the subway using Google Glass and a smartphone. It went viral on Twitter. The guy was dubbed ‘the glasshole’, a pun that works in both American and English accents.

Google Glass has given wearable tech a bad name: it’s raw material for standup comics. You do have to wonder whether something went wrong when Google was downloading its sense of humour, given that Astro Teller’s official title is Captain of Moonshots.

Fortunately there is good news about wearable tech emanating from the shores of lake Geneva. With funding from DARPA, researchers at the EPFL  (École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne) have developed a contact lens which not only corrects vision, but improves on it in radical ways. Here are the details from CNN:

Lights, mirrors, action! Scientists are developing smart contact lenses embedded with miniscule [sic – maybe CNN should try out this ‘spellcheck’ technology] mirrors that can magnify your vision by almost three times.

The 1.55mm-thick lenses incorporate a thin reflective telescope made of mirrors and filters; when light enters the eye it bounces off the series of mirrors and increases the perceived view of an object or person. It is hoped that the lens will improve the sight of people with age-related macular degeneration (AMD) – the third leading cause of blindness globally.

This is genuinely useful, though not sexy and therefore unlikely to generate the hype we witnessed at last year’s Wearable Technologies conference, which – following the comic mishaps of Google Glass – now reads like something from the fevered nightmares of Charlie Brooker.

Poseurs won’t be interested because the Glass thing was mocked so mercilessly. Now they want medallion-sized smart watches. Also, AMD affects millions of old people and no one in the tech world gives a stuff about them. They don’t even know what a flat white is!

But the EPFL breakthrough is important, and has innumerable other potential uses. Zoom contact lenses will be snatched up by the military once they’re ready: the US Department of Defence has already placed an order for a prototype contact lens which sharpens vision far beyond 20:20.

Zooming lenses could also provide a novel solution to presbyopia, which means everyone (irrespective of their existing eyesight) loses the ability to shift between short and long distances at about 45. There are already bifocal contact lenses to deal with this but the fact that they haven’t taken off in a big way suggests that they’re far from a perfect solution.

So the possibilities of zoom are extraordinary, though there’s a long way to go: at the moment the telescope contacts require cumbersome headgear. But it’s encouraging to see wearable technology being used for serious purposes, rather than as an embarrassing gimmick for hipsters and playboy billionaires.