University of Washington

One day, perhaps in the not-too-distant future, our bodies will be punctuated by an array of chips and sensors, devices that will constantly mine us for data about our health.

Now researchers at the University of Washington have just solved one of the major hurdles in getting there.

Companies like Google have long sought to design smart contact lenses that can perform feats such as monitoring blood glucose levels. But designing a piece of sophisticated technology that can fit onto something as small as a contact lens comes with a fair number of challenges. A new technology developed by University of Washington scientists called interscatter communication solves one of them: the issue of how to power such a tiny device.

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Interscatter communication works like this: when a smartphone emits a Bluetooth signal, the smart contact lens can pick up that signal, add its own data and then convert the Bluetooth signal into Wi-Fi transmissions to be sent to smartphone. This allows a tiny device like, say, a smart contact lens or brain-computer interface, to easily communicate with everyday devices like smartphones while requiring very little power to operate.

"Say a user has a smartwatch or a smartphone," one of the researchers explained in a video demonstrating the technology. "Interscatter simply absorbs or reflects Bluetooth transmissions from the smartwatch and transforms them into wifi packets with their own data."

Google's Verily Life Sciences has so far been the most aggressive in the push to develop smart contact lenses. The company is working with Swiss drug maker Novartis to develop a lens with an embedded glucose sensor that continuously measures the glucose levels in a person's tears. This new research is funded in part by Google, along with the National Science Foundation.

Other approaches to the smart contact have included a lens that can instantly focus the eye, one that can measure the progression of glaucoma, and a lens that gives soldiers the ability to see in the dark using thermal imaging. Sony and Samsung have both been working on smart contact lens projects, too.

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"Smart contact lenses will change how we monitor diseases," a University of Washington researcher said in the video. "For example a smart contact lens could monitor a diabetic's blood sugar levels and provide early warnings."

Experts have suggested that Google's plan to replace a diabetic's blood tests with glucose-sensing contact lenses is "scientifically dubious at best." A former Verily employee recently told Stat News that the project's breakthroughs existed only on PowerPoint images. Other glucose-sensing contacts projects have failed to make it to market, because the levels of glucose contacts can read in the fluids of the eye simply do not stack up to the levels of glucose in blood.

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But the Interscatter communication breakthrough is one that will likely resonate beyond the niche of smart contact lenses or diabetes. The technology could allow chips implanted in the brain to communicate wirelessly with smartphones, too, for example. It could also be useful for devices outside of the body, perhaps one day allowing two smart credit cards to talk to each other and split a check. The technology opens up the possibilities for all kinds of tiny devices to communicate with each other and with our phones while requiring very little energy to do it.

For now, researchers at the Seattle university have only built proof-of-concept demos of their technology. They've used an implantable neural recording device to send signals from a piece of meat standing in for human tissue to a smartphone.

In the near future, though, it looks like we all might be a whole lot more connected.