Google Patent Looks at Tiny Cameras on Contact Lenses

If Google ever does build and market such contact lenses, they could potentially help vision-impaired people by "seeing" for them. Right now, it's only a patent application.

Google is again looking at how specially modified contact lenses could be built to help people with medical problems—this time potentially fitting contacts with tiny cameras that could someday help visually impaired people get sound cues about what the contacts "see" in their path.

A patent application by Google for the technology was recently revealed by the blog site Patent Bolt, which described how such "smart" contact lenses could capture an image, process it, and give an audio signal or warning to a vision-impaired person wearing the lenses.

The work with the latest contact lenses camera patent comes just a few months after Google announced in January that it is experimenting with special contact lenses equipped with miniaturized sensors that can analyze the tears in the eyes of diabetes patients to determine when their blood sugar levels need to be adjusted.

The contact lens camera patent is potentially just as intriguing. "For example, a blind person wearing Google's contact lens with a built-in camera may be walking on a sidewalk and approaching an intersection," the Patent Bolt post explained. "The analysis component of the contact lens … can process the raw image data of the camera to determine processed image data indicating that the blind person is approaching intersection with a crosswalk and establish that there is a car approaching the intersection."

That data could then be processed multiple times as it is created, so that the lenses and camera can indicate whether the car is in motion and approaching the crosswalk and process a sound to alert the wearer, the post continued. That sound could be sent to a remote device such as an Android smartphone, which could provide the audible warning.

"For example, the smartphone will be able to provide a voice-generated warning that the crosswalk isn't safe to cross," the post continued. "The system, as noted in Google's opening summary, also points to the camera being able to detect 'faces,' which could be another advantage for the blind."

That could also make a face recognition feature useful to police departments, the post continued. "Think of it being used by law enforcement in checking out a suspect that they're questioning in a vehicle or on the street. The facial recognition system could quickly take a photo of the suspect and run it through a special database matching it to outstanding warrants or other red flags with the suspect being aware of it."

Although the Patent Bolt analysis of the contact lens camera patent was published recently, the patent application was actually filed in the fourth quarter of 2012. The application was only recently published by the U.S. Patent Office, according to the blog.

In an email response to an inquiry by eWEEK, a Google spokesperson said on April 29 that the company declined to discuss the patent application. "We hold patents on a variety of ideas—some of those ideas later mature into real products or services; some don't. Prospective product announcements should not necessarily be inferred from our patents."

Whether or not such contact lenses are ever built or tested or produced in mass quantities, it provides a fascinating look at the breadth of research being conducted by Google in the world of medicine.

The research into using contact lenses to help diabetes patients that was announced earlier is also not certain for ultimate release, but the possibilities it offers is very interesting, including the chance that they could someday make the management of diabetes easier for millions of patients around the world, according to an earlier eWEEK report. Managing diabetes for patients today can mean wearing glucose monitors and constantly pricking their skin and testing their blood for sugar levels. To change that, alternative methods are always being evaluated and tested.

The experimental lenses, which look like typical curved, round lenses, also feature copper-colored "grid" lines that are reminiscent of the rear window heater lines on a modern automobile. The sensors embedded in the grid lines measure glucose levels and analyze the wearer's tears using a tiny wireless chip and a miniaturized glucose sensor that are embedded between two layers of soft contact lens material, according to the post. The study is still in its early phases, but multiple clinical research studies have already been completed that are helping refine the lens prototypes.Patent