Maybe We Shouldn’t Go Bananas Over Smart Contacts Just Yet

Imagine plopping a contact lens in your eye, and instead of just seeing better, you could see an enhanced view of your environment. That’s what Mojo Vision is saying their new prototype smart contact lens could do. Eventually. It sounds like a concept straight out of a sci-fi movie. But whereas anything is possible in fiction, real life has very real limitations—and there’s a lot of questions Mojo Vision has to answer before anyone should get excited over smart contacts.

Mojo Vision’s aim is noble. Its first prototype is designed to help people with low vision via a teeny, tiny, 14,000 ppi display. It also includes sensors to help detect motion, as well as a radio to interact with a wearable device or smartphone. Write-ups of demos shown at CES note that a fully working product might help someone with low vision see in the dark. But helping to solve a medical necessity isn’t the only thing that has tech media hyped about this particular product and smart contacts in general. It’s the idea of an invisible computer that you plop into your eye that could act like a pair of smart glasses.

We’ve gone into great detail about the hurdles facing smart eyewear at Gizmodo, and many of those same problems apply to smart contact lenses. That said, there’s another element to contact lenses that deserves much more scrutiny: the fact that contacts have to sit directly on your eyeball. That has major health implications. Ask any friend who uses contact lenses, and you probably know someone who isn’t the best at taking them out every night or making sure they’re properly disinfected. Hygiene aside, there’s a lot of questions in the wearables space right now as to how effective these gadgets are as medical devices.

Mojo Vision’s prototype is a hard scleral lens, which is not the same as the soft lenses you’re more likely to be familiar with. It’s a special type of contact lens that rests on the sclera or the white part of your eye, and is used to treat various eye conditions. Mojo Vision told Gizmodo via email that one reason they picked a scleral lens is it “touches fewer nerves and is very comfortable because it is custom-fitted to the shape of your eye.” It also provides stability that a soft lens doesn’t. Another benefit: Hard lenses aren’t disposable in the way soft lenses are, which is a good thing if you’re going to shell out for expensive technology.

This is well and good if you’re someone with low vision. But for the average, healthy person it’s not quite as simple, convenient, or easy as you’d imagine for a futuristic Google Glass replacement.

“Scleral lenses are incredible medical devices that are used for patients who have corneal disease, irregular astigmatism, or severe dry eye,” Dr. Suzanne Sherman, assistant professor of optometric sciences at Columbia University Medical Center, told Gizmodo over the phone. “While they are incredible devices, they can be cumbersome. You need a certain solution—saline—to be put into the bowl of the lens. You need certain care products to take care of it. It’s more challenging to insert.”

Dr. Sherman went on to explain that scleral lenses are a valuable medical tool, but the average person wouldn’t be likely to prefer them. In addition to requiring a certain level of skill to insert or remove, they must also be properly fitted or a patient could experience some serious problems. If you were a tech-savvy first adopter, you might assume you could just pop out to a Duane Reade and buy some multipurpose solution for your smart contacts. But the reality is using the wrong solution could result in a toxic reaction.