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Google's next wearable smart device

Google is working on a smart contact lens prototype that monitors glucose levels in tears. The technology could end finger pricks for diabetics.

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Wearable devices are already bringing technology much closer to you than you ever may have expected, but Google has kicked it up to a whole new level.

The data will never hit Google's servers. 

Joseph Lorenzo Hall, Centre for Democracy and Technology

The company last week announced a project to make a smart contact lens. But this gadget isn't going to be used to deliver your email straight into your skull – at least not yet. This project is working to tackle one of the biggest health problems facing us today: diabetes.

Given the wariness around wearable devices and their capabilities for data collection, the idea that the company would get that much closer raises the question: how will Google handle this data? Or, for that matter, how can any commercial company stepping into a new world of collecting sensitive medical data deal with the security concerns?

It's a question that Google's clearly thought a lot about, said Joseph Lorenzo Hall, chief technologist at the Centre for Democracy and Technology, who was briefed on the lens before the company's announcement. Hall said Google assured him the data would not be added to the company's banks of personal information gathered from other servers.

"The data will never hit Google's servers," he said. "That's a forward-thinking affirmative claim that they're making. That is important."

The soft contact lens Google is introducing – it's still just a prototype – houses a sensor between two layers of lenses that measures the glucose levels in tears. A tiny pinhole in the lens lets tear fluid seep over the glucose monitor to get regular readings. Right now, the company said, it can get a level reading once every second. The lens also features a tiny antenna, capacitor and controller, so the information gathered from the lens can move from your eye to a device such as a handheld monitor, where that data can be read and analysed. It will draw its power from that device and communicate with it using a wireless technology known as RFID.

Given the sensitive nature of the data, Hall said, Google has also said it will make sure any data transferred from the lens will be insulated against anyone who might want to change its readings – something that could have potentially fatal consequences if patients inject the wrong amount of insulin. Google has also worked to build in safeguards against other kinds of problems, such as a piece that's a little like a circuit-breaker to prevent the lens from overheating.

The US National Diabetes Education Program estimates that 382 million people around the world have diabetes.

That means every day – multiple times a day – those hundreds of millions of people have to take time out of their day to prick themselves to test their blood levels. And because the process is so uncomfortable and difficult, it's becomes hard for a lot of people to properly manage the disease.

Or, as Google project co-founders Brian Otis and Babak Parviz said: "Although some people wear glucose monitors with a glucose sensor embedded under their skin, all people with diabetes must still prick their finger and test drops of blood throughout the day. It's disruptive, and it's painful. And as a result, many people with diabetes check their blood glucose less often than they should."

Physicians and medical researchers have thought about ways to measure glucose through the fluid in the eye for years, but have had trouble figuring out how best to capture and analyse those tears reliably. Some companies, such as EyeSense, have developed their own products to embed sensors in the eye to measure these levels, while other companies such as Freedom Meditech have explored measuring glucose levels through the eye using light.

But Google, tapping Parviz's deep knowledge of biotech, has come up with this solution. Parviz – who once led the Google Glass team – and Otis were colleagues at the University of Washington before moving over to Google's department for developing "moonshot" projects, Google[x]. The company is still in the early days of the smart contact lens project, but said it is in discussions with the US Food and Drug Administration to figure out how to bring the product to market.

Hall is excited about the product but said if the device interacts with apps from other companies, consumers will have to trust their security, too.

"One thing I do worry about is mobile security itself. It is a miasma, and the app that's developed to use with this is probably going to be made by someone else," he said. "Whoever is making that app will have to answer those questions. But they haven't been answered yet because we haven't gotten that far down the line."

Washington Post