Contact lenses are being wired to replace our phone screens

Walk down any street and you̵

7;ll see people patting their necks to look at their phones. But in the not-too-distant future, we’ll probably be staring at digital information hovering around the world before us, thanks to augmented reality (AR), taking on a mix of the digital and real world. In Saratoga, California, engineers are working to realize such a future, churning out prototypes of smart contact lenses filled with tiny circuits, batteries, and tiny displays.

When I visited Mojo Vision’s office, I tried to hold its AR smart contact lens about an inch in front of my eye, rotating the lens and moving a cursor around the space in front of me. I used a virtual reality (VR) headset to test its eye-tracking technology and demo apps by simply moving my eye and directing a small cursor. I could read from a teleprompter that showed a series of words moving my eye, and looked around the room to see arrows pointing north and west, designed to help with outdoor navigation was. To ‘click’ on one of the apps dotted around the circle hovering in front of me, I just stared at a little tab next to the app for an extra second. Numbers and text appeared in my upper field of view, to say, my cycling speed, or to display the weather, or to show me flight information. To close the app, I would look away for a full second.

Technologists have talked for years about what will happen next once mobile devices replace the desktop as our major gateway to the Internet. Meta chief Mark Zuckerberg is placing his bets on the Metaverse, an immersive virtual world entered through a headset. But the big change will be in AR, where glasses or contact lenses display online feeds mixed into our view of the real world. It will help in multitasking. Phones will become like mini servers that coordinate our wearable devices like earbuds, watches and eyewear.

Mojo Vision’s lenses are perhaps one of Silicon Valley’s most ambitious hardware projects. The company had to develop its own chemicals and plastic compounds that would allow an eyeball to breathe through a lens filled with electronics. The lens was thick, and large enough to extend beyond the iris to cover the whites of the eyes. It includes nine titanium batteries used in cardiac pacemakers and a flexible circuit comparable to that of a human hair. A slightly convex mirror bounces light off a small reflector to enhance performance by simulating a telescope. From a distance of a few feet, that little display looks like a prick of light. But when I took a closer look at the lens, I could see a video that looked quite large.

People may someday watch TikTok videos on it, but Mojo Vision wants the lens to have practical use. It is also working on a lens for the visually impaired that features glowing digital edges on objects to make those objects easier to see. It’s also testing different interfaces with companies that make running, skiing and golfing apps for phones, to offer a new kind of hands-free performance of the activity. Sinclair says that barring regulatory holdups, consumers can buy a Mojo lens in less than five years with a bespoke prescription. That could be an ambitious timeline, given that other AR projects have been delayed, or, like Google Glass, haven’t lived up to their hype.

Google parent Alphabet also failed to deliver a smart contact lens for medical use, but overall, Big Tech firms continue to drive VR and AR development. Apple is working on lightweight AR glasses that it plans to release later this decade. It is expected that sometime next year, Apple may also launch a mixed-reality headset. Facebook currently dominates VR device sales with its Quest 2 headset, but it’s also racing to launch its first AR glasses in 2024, as reported.

Why is Augmented Reality taking longer? Because it mixes digital elements with physical objects in a scene that is constantly in motion. This is a complex task and requires a lot of processing power. Still, our desire to have at least one foot in the real world means we’re likely to eventually spend more time in AR.

The big question is how to balance being present in real-world life while constantly looking at digital information. Today it takes a few seconds to remove the phone, open an app, and perform an action on the screen. In the future, we will be able to enter an app by simply looking at it for an extra second. This will throw up all kinds of thorny issues surrounding addiction and how we interact with the world around us.

A Mojo Vision executive said this concern came years ago when the iPhone was being developed: “I can’t say how we’re going to completely nail it down at Mojo. But the trend is heading in that direction.” that people are going to have immediate access to information.” Whether with contact lenses or glasses, the human eye will point to a world floating in digital information more than ever before. So much for instilling a habit in our mind.

Parmy Olson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology.

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