I reacted with wry amusement when a bit of junk mail recently popped up on my Apple Watch with the subject line, “Man and machine are merging even more than before.” My watch tapped me on the wrist to share that with me, as it does all day long for texts, emails, news alerts and other notifications. Smart watches may not yet have gone mainstream the way other new tech platforms have, but the potential is clear. Connected devices worn on the body will be able to share data continuously, in both directions, if we’ll let them.
Will we? Intentionally or not, we seem wary of “merging even more than before” with technology. Smart watches still feel like a niche rather than a necessity. The much-ballyhooed Google Glass flopped and was withdrawn. Now, virtual reality headsets—long a staple of sci-fi—are on the cusp of reality, as Facebook preps its Oculus Rift headset for launch. Although VR fires up the imaginations of tech geeks (yours truly included), the concept does create unease. A creepy photo of Mark Zuckerberg striding through a room full of headset-wearing drones made headlines in February about the dystopian future it may portend. If that’s what the merging of man and machine looks like, plenty of people will be inclined to take a pass.
But can smart contact lenses succeed where other platforms have struggled? Many in eye care cheered the recent release of the Triggerfish contact lens, which monitors eye movements believed to be analogs for intraocular pressure fluctuation. A microchip embedded in a silicone contact lens records circumferential changes in corneoscleral shape; the data allows doctors to view a diurnal curve of a glaucoma patient to refine the approach to therapy.
Great idea, so-so execution. The strictly utilitarian Triggerfish set-up won’t win any fashion awards. The nifty smart lens itself gets all the glamour photos, but patients are also required to wear an antenna around the orbit and a data recording device around the neck. One can argue that clinical value trumps convenience and aesthetics—rightly so—but wearables need better consumer appeal if patients are going to let them into their lives routinely.
Apple understands this and works hard to position its watch as a fashionable (or at least inoffensive) accessory. And its recent launch of a platform called CareKit seeks to further integrate tech and health by letting developers write software so that patients can record symptoms and medication effects in real time. Imagine an Apple Watch app that dry eye patients tap each time they feel burning or stinging, or another that lets a contact lens wearer grade comfort throughout the day.
For now, smart contact lenses hold much promise. Alcon continues to work with Google on a lens to monitor glucose levels in diabetes patients and an accommodating lens for presbyopes. Human trials are set to begin this year on the latter. We wish them luck. And foresight.
Gotta go—just felt another tap on the wrist. Maybe Oculus Rift pre-orders are now open.