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Medical Sensing via a Contact Lens

Having succeeded in making computers faster, smaller, and cheaper, technologists are now focused on making computing more accessible—more effortlessly integrated into the user’s life—enabling more people to do more interesting things. Over the last few years, Microsoft has been working on creating natural user interfaces (NUIs) that make interacting with computers seamless, so that people can focus on completing their everyday tasks, building better relationships, and living better lives, even—or especially—when they’re on the go.

The Functional Contact Lens project is one such NUI endeavor. A collaboration between Professor Babak Parviz and his Bio-Nanotechnology group at the University of Washington and Senior Researcher Desney Tan and his Computational User Experiences group at Microsoft Research, the project aims to build a contact lens that provides the wearer with a fully configurable display of digital information.

In the initial phases of this project, the team designed and built prototype contact lenses that included an embedded LED display, a wireless data communication link, and a power harvesting unit. While difficult problems remain—for example, adequately focusing the light and dealing with the jitter of the contact lenses—this proof-of-concept is highly encouraging.

Recently, the team took advantage of the fact that the lens comes into contact with bodily fluid—tears, to be precise—to explore applicability of the lens for continuous medical sensing. Tests show that blood-glucose levels can be measured via special sensors embedded into the lens. This could be a boon to patients with Type I diabetes, allowing them to monitor their blood-glucose levels without having to jab their fingertips several times a day. Moreover, the lens would monitor glucose levels continuously, a major improvement over the snapshot readings from periodic finger-stick blood draws.

Initially, the lens would record information on blood-glucose levels for review by patients and their physicians. Ideally, however, the lens will be perfected to automatically display alerts of abnormal glucose levels directly in the wearer’s view. Such alerts would prompt the patient to inject insulin or eat a high-glucose snack—and would fulfill the NUI goal of providing seamless computing interaction that improves quality of life.

While the project team continues to explore uses of a fundamentally new type of natural user interface based on the functional contact lens, they have developed a number of novel methods for building devices such as sensors, radios, and antennas and integrating them onto a thin, flexible substrate. These methods are of significant interest to researchers in the fields of augmented reality, continuous health, and activity monitoring, and provide inspiration to Microsoft engineers who are developing future NUI technologies.

Primary Researchers

Babak Parviz

Babak Parviz, Ph.D.,is the McMorrow Innovation Associate Professor in the Electrical Engineering Department and the associate director of the Micro-scale Life Sciences Center at the University of Washington. His research at the interface between biology and electrical engineering has led to a rewarding collaboration with Microsoft Research to develop functional contact lenses by using novel methods in computer science and engineering.

Desney Tan

Desney Tan is a senior researcher at Microsoft Research, where he manages the Computational User Experiences group in Redmond, Washington, as well as the Human-Computer Interaction group in Beijing, China. Desney was honored as one of MIT Technology Review's 2007 list of 35 innovators under 35 for his work on brain-computer interfaces, and was named one of SciFi Channel's Young Visionaries at TED 2009, as well as Forbes' Revolutionaries: radical thinkers and their world-changing ideas for his work on Whole Body Computing.