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Will Google’s Smart Contact Lenses Take Off?

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Google is investing its money in a product that has a noble cause. It is developing contact lenses that would help diabetics track their blood glucose levels, and possibly another application of “accommodative vision correction”. This means that instead of switching between reading glasses and regular glasses, these lenses would adjust based on the reading distance. In comparison to the previously launched Google Glass, the smart contact lens is surely a more exciting and enabling product concept. Beyond its small form, it represents something much larger – the advancement of healthcare and miniaturisation of technology. While technology has been revolutionising eyewear in the form of gawky augmented reality glasses and wearable sensors (think Jins Meme glasses used to track user fatigue levels), contact lenses are finally joining in the digital fray.

Initially, product hype surrounding Google’s contact lenses mainly pandered to investors and stockholders. Is it just a “fancy-schmancy” idea? Would it remain a prototype with limited commercial application? I believe that the product holds a lot of promise, and with Novartis collaborating on the project, there is the willpower to push through with it. Technology wise it is not impossible to accomplish. However, the future of the product lies in people’s (medical community included) willingness to embrace the product, which may take a while, as the concept of putting a medical device in the eye is still rather ahead of its time.

A Mutually Beneficial Partnership

As mentioned earlier, Novartis recently signed an agreement with Google to co-develop and license the smart lenses.

For Novartis, a ground-breaking product based on Google's innovative smart lens technology would be a great boost to the pharmaceutical giant. According to Euromonitor International estimates, Novartis already boasted US$3,173.1 million of contact lens sales in 2012 worldwide, second only to Johnson & Johnson in the global contact lens market. Should the smart lenses be developed with intraocular vision correction, it would assert Novartis’ leadership in the intraocular lens market, which its competitors such as Abbott Laboratories and Bausch & Lomb are already vying to snatch a slice of.

For Google, it is able to tap into Novartis’ medical expertise in ophthalmology. Novartis' Alcon unit has the expertise in manufacturing contact lenses and bringing new products to market. For the latter, it has experience in sponsoring clinical studies, lobbying government agencies and working with the FDA, all of which are necessary to convince the medical community that a new product is safe to use.

Collaboration between the titans of their industries adds legitimacy to this latest product in the pipeline.

Commercial Product or Moonshot?

With a large proportion of diabetes diagnoses coming from lower-income groups, the immediate question that comes to mind relates to the cost and practicality of the glucose-sensing contact lenses. In addition, there are reports that suggest that diabetic patients may be particularly susceptible to developing ocular complications from contact lens wear. These factors, put together, seem to suggest that the product is first and foremost an exploratory project, something of a moonshot, to test and demonstrate Google’s technological capabilities.  Google itself has stated that the lenses are not expected to go on consumer sale for at least five years. Yet it is a step in the right direction, and, as with most ground-breaking innovations, players would later step in and find ways to improve and make further strides forward with more commercially feasible options.

Road Blocks Ahead, but Towards a Brighter Future

Google has filed a US patent for embedding microscopic cameras into the contact lenses, enabling the user to photograph his direct line of vision. As with everything that Google does, there is the risk that data may be collected, especially when plans for the contact lenses include the wireless transmission of data to mobile phones and computers. Besides having to deal with privacy issues and bringing the product to market, the product concept itself looks to be an exciting and promising one. If brought to market, it would change the healthcare market tremendously. Kudos to Google for spotting this market need early and accurately. When the product eventually does go into commercial production, it would not only help patients to lower the cost of treatment via self-monitoring, but also help doctors to continually monitor patients.

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