Could smart contact lenses grant millions the gift of sight?
In this episode of TechFirst with John Koetsier we chat with Andrés Vásquez Quintero, a professor at Ghent University in Belgium, where researchers have just presented an artificial iris embedded in a smart contact lens.
It has an artificial iris, an all-day battery, an on-board ASIC, or application-specific integrated circuit, and a very small LCD screen. And it can do very basic augmented reality for people with limited vision.
PLEASE NOTE: the wifi at Ghent was not great, so Andres’ video is pretty sketchy and a little delayed at points. That’s mostly fixed in the audio, and cleaned up in the transcript below (keep scrolling).
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(This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity).
John Koetsier: Could smart contact lenses grant millions the gift of sight? Welcome to TechFirst with John Koetsier.
In the tech industry, we tend to think of smart contact lenses sort of like smart glasses. They’re kind of the next smartphone only smaller maybe, less visible, less intrusive, and more wearable. But actually, smart contact lenses might be more useful medically for people with poor vision or eye diseases, and they might be available in just a few years. At Ghent University in Belgium, researchers have just presented an artificial iris embedded in a smart contact lens.
To learn more, we’re chatting with Andrés Vásquez Quintero, a professor at the university. Andrés, welcome!
Andrés Vásquez Quintero: Hi, John, thank you very much for the invitation.
John Koetsier: Hey, super happy to have you. Tell us, what have you made?
Andrés Vásquez Quintero: Yeah, well basically we have made a smart contact lens platform that involves different electronic components, and we focus on trying to fix the vision of people. So these are needs of some patients. And then inside of the lens we have different components, electronics, and liquid crystal models to be able to help these patients.
John Koetsier: Excellent. What does the smart contact lens do? What have you been able to make it do so far?
Andrés Vásquez Quintero:
Yeah, so we base it on refocusing vision correction. There is other research going on into biosensing and also augmented reality. We would like to be able to change the vision of people by using the liquid crystal.
And at the moment, one of the applications we have is to be able to control the amount of light that enters the eye … [we] can do it electronically with the components.
John Koetsier: Interesting. So what vision problems can it correct?
Andrés Vásquez Quintero: About the different diseases or disorders that we can help, mostly it’s people that have high sensitivity to light.
This is called photophobia as well, and then we can help these patients to reduce the amount of light that enters into the eye, and then they can then go ahead through their daily life with a better quality of life.
These type of patients, they can come from different sectors, so you can have ocular problems, but also you can have neurological problems like chronic migraine, traumatic brain injury, dry eye disease, so there are different sectors that you can help with this type of device.
John Koetsier: So how’s that work? I’m assuming you have a light sensor on the contact lens and the light sensor can see how much light is out there and is adjusting sort of an artificial iris to allow more light or less light in.
Andrés Vásquez Quintero: Yes, that is exactly the functionality, so we have embedded inside of the contact lens photodials that can detect the amount of light in the room, in the environment. If you are indoors or if you are outdoors, it would work in the same way.
And then after these sensors they detect the amount of light, we have a very smart ASIC chip that we developed in Belgium that is able to control then the amount of rings that we have in the liquid crystal model. And this is going to control the size of the effective pupil, and then also going to control the amount of light that enters your eye.
And then you’ll have two benefits. First of all, you’ll have less lights and second, you have a higher depth of field. So then people can see sharp in a better way.
John Koetsier: Is it user configurable? Can the user, can the person who’s wearing the contact lens say, ‘I need more light’ or ‘less light’ or is it automatic?
Andrés Vásquez Quintero: Yeah, that is indeed the intention. At the moment in the lab, we have tested prototypes which react automatically to light. And the intention is that we can also program the thresholds of light. So basically we can define different parameters for different patients, because as you know, everybody knows their sensitivity to light is very subjective. So, this is why ideally we would like to program for different type of patients that you have different disorders, but also for example, if you are indoor or outdoors you have different light settings.
John Koetsier: Right. Right. What’s all the technology that’s on board? You mentioned that there’s an ASIC onboard. There’s obviously some functionality for an iris.
What other technology is on the smart contact lens?
Andrés Vásquez Quintero: Yes.
So that technology is divided in three main parts. The first one, as you mentioned, is the ASIC that we developed here in-house to be able to help photodials and controlling the liquid crystal. The liquid crystal is the second component where we have different rings that we can turn on and off. And the third technology that we use is coming from the MEMS technology. So we use MEMS technology, micro electromechanical systems, which is the same technology that we use nowadays to manufacture all the physical sensors in our phones.
So all the accelerometers or gyroscopes they use MEMS technology and we’re using the same technology to develop our smart platform, and then this platform goes embedded inside of the contact lens.
John Koetsier: Interesting. And you have an onboard battery. What battery technology are you using and how long does the battery last?
Andrés Vásquez Quintero: Yeah. So for the moment, the prototypes that we have developed, we have commercial batteries which are a solid state lithium batteries, of course they’re very small in size, only a few millimeters of area. It’s quite amazing that we make it very thin of course, so it sits inside of the lens. And then the idea is that the design that we have this battery can last for a full day of operation obviously with this cell.
John Koetsier: Interesting. Is the battery see-through? Or is the battery in the area around the pupil?
Andrés Vásquez Quintero: Yeah, that’s also very important. So the electronics we developed with the batteries they are not see-through and this is why we placed them around the optical zone, so just around the pupil. So in fact, the people they won’t be able to see this liquid crystal which comes in the center part of the contact lens.
John Koetsier: Okay. Okay, interesting. Now I wear contact lenses, I have contact lenses in right now. I put them in every morning, take them out every night. Is it as comfortable as an ordinary contact lens? Is it thicker? Is it more like maybe a hard contact lens like people used to wear and some still do?
Andrés Vásquez Quintero: Yeah, that’s a very important question because our approach it’s really focused into this aspect.
So what we want to do is a platform that goes inside of a conventional contact lens. So we have developed prototypes for soft contact lenses as well as rigid contact lenses. But to understand it better, it’s some kind of sandwich that goes really, the platform goes inside of the contact lens. So in fact it’s not less comfortable than a normal lens, but it’s exactly the same because the material in contact with the eye is the same as a contact that you’re using today.
John Koetsier: Interesting.
Andrés Vásquez Quintero: So that’s the approach that we wanted to take.
John Koetsier: Interesting. So you mentioned AR, augmented reality, and of course that would be a far future capability because that’s going to require much more onboard intelligence and much more battery, compute all that stuff. But what kinds of things would you like to be able to do with it, eventually?
Andrés Vásquez Quintero: Yeah. I think, you know, the first step what’s going to happen in the field is that we are going to help patients with a low vision problem, with augmented reality but a very low amount of pixels you can say. So it’s not like we’re going to have a movie displayed on our contact lens because, as you mentioned, we need more powered and more computing power, but we’re going to give simple signals for people with no vision.
John Koetsier: What are your next steps? And how soon can we see something like this in the market?
Andrés Vásquez Quintero: Yeah, the next steps, we’re still validating the prototypes to improve the technology, as well as we’re validating this clinically. So it’s very important to point out that the contact lens is a medical device.
So it’s really close contact with the eye, so we need to prove the safety and the efficacy on a clinical trial. So this is like any other medical device. So the next steps are those clinical trials, and the next thing is we’re going to start and people in the field are going to start with clinical trials to validate the comfort, safety, and efficacy of the devices.
John Koetsier: When will those medical trials start?
Andrés Vásquez Quintero: The clinical trials for the preliminary tests they have started already here …
John Koetsier: Wow.
Andrés Vásquez Quintero: … at the university. These are some preliminary prototypes to be able to analyze the first aspects of the concept. And then the clinical trials with the active device they will happen later in time. We expect that in the next three to five years the trials will be initialized and finalized with the results.
John Koetsier: Okay. Okay. Very good. If you project out maybe a little farther beyond that and you’ve got working contact lenses out in the market helping people, and you’re working on the next generation beyond that. What’s that look like to you? What kind of capabilities are you thinking about for that?
Andrés Vásquez Quintero: Yeah. I think besides what we just mentioned of vision correction and augmented reality, the sensing field is coming very strongly, and that means the fact that you can sense clinically what you have in the tear fluid.
So you can integrate different sensors in our contact lens platform and then you’re able to give the patient some kind of feedback about what’s really in the body, because whatever you can measure in the tear fluid you can also measure in blood. So in fact, that’s very interesting, but of course for that you need specialized sensors, you need more power, and then a way to communicate the data out from the contact lens.
John Koetsier: Interesting. So you’re going to put medical technology on the contact lens, sense the tears, and learn things about somebody’s health or wellness based on that. And to do so, you’re going to need to put a little radio, Bluetooth radio or something like that in the contact lens. It is an interesting world we’re moving into. Well, Andrés, I want to thank you so much for joining us on TechFirst. Thank you for coming on.
Andrés Vásquez Quintero: Thank you very much for the invitation and I hope everything was pretty clear. Thank you very much.
John Koetsier: Appreciate it. For everybody else, hey, thank you for joining us on TechFirst as well. My name is John Koetsier. I appreciate you being along for the show. You’ll be able to get a full transcript of this podcast in about a week at JohnKoetsier.com, and of course a story at Forbes will come out shortly thereafter. Plus the full video will be available on my YouTube channel.
Thank you for joining. Maybe share with a friend. Until next time … this is John Koetsier with TechFirst.