Walking down any street, you’ll come across a familiar sight: people craning their necks and looking at their phones. But, in the not-too-distant future, we’ll probably just be staring at digital information floating around the world in front of us, a mix of the digital and real worlds, all thanks to augmented reality.
In an ordinary office building in Saratoga, California, dozens of engineers are working on that future, producing on a weekly basis prototypes of smart contact lenses packed with microcircuits, batteries and one of the world’s smallest screens.
When I visited MojoVision’s office in July, I held the smart AR contact lens an inch in front of my eyes to experience its features, rotating the cursor around the space in front of me by moving the lens. Since I couldn’t wear contact lenses, I used a head-worn VR device to test eye-tracking technology and experimental applications, pointing a small cursor by simply moving my eyes. I could read from a digital controller that displayed a series of words as I moved my eyes, and I could look around the room to see arrows pointing north and west, designed to help users navigate open spaces.
To click on an app that spreads around a circle hovering in front of me, I simply looked for an extra second at a small tab next to the app. Numbers and text appeared in my upper field of vision, for example showing the speed of my bike, showing information about the weather, or giving me information about an upcoming ride. Closing the app, I averted my eyes from this information for a moment.
For years, technologists have been talking about what the next computing platform will be, after a decade of replacing mobile devices with desktop computers as our primary gateway to the Internet. In this regard, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta, places his bet on Metaverse, a virtual world in which a person will fully immerse himself by wearing a device on the head.
However, I think the biggest shift will be to augmented reality, where glasses or contact lenses display information about the world around us so that we can see the online world and the real world at the same time. If there’s one thing people love to do (albeit badly in many cases), it’s multitasking. In the future, phones will become little servers that coordinate all the different devices we will increasingly wear on our bodies: earphones, watches and soon glasses, the latest piece in the invisible computing puzzle.
In this context, Mojo Vision lenses are a wonder in the engineering world, and perhaps one of the most ambitious hardware projects in Silicon Valley today. The company had to develop its own chemicals and plastics, which would allow the eyeball to breathe through a lens coated with electronics. When I held the lens in my hand, it was noticeably thick, large enough to extend past the iris to cover parts of the white of the eye.
It’s not annoying,” says David Hobbs, the startup’s senior director of product management, who has already worn several prototypes.
The lens contains nine titanium batteries, the type commonly found in pacemakers, and a flexible circuit narrower than a human hair that provides all the power and data. A slightly convex mirror bounces light off a small reflector, simulating telescope mechanics, which magnifies pixels packed into just two microns by about 0.002 millimeters. From a few meters away, this little screen looks like a tiny dot of light. However, when I looked closer through the lens, I could see a video.
I can imagine people watching videos on TikTok these days, but Mojo Vision wants the lens to have practical uses. About that, Steve Sinclair, senior vice president of product and marketing, said the information the lens displays on your eye must be “very narrow, quick bits.” However, the company is still figuring out “how much information is too much information,” according to Sinclair, who was previously on the product team at Apple Inc. worked that developed the iPhone.
Currently, Mojo Vision is working to create a lens for visually impaired people that shows glowing digital edges placed on objects to make them easier to see. In addition, the company is testing different interfaces with companies that make running, skiing and golfing apps for phones, for a new kind of hands-free activity display. Without regulatory hiccups, Sinclair said, consumers will be able to buy a custom Mojo lens in less than five years. This may be an ambitious timeline, as other AR projects have been delayed or, like Google Glass, failed to live up to the hype.
For its part, Alphabet Inc., the parent company of Google, has also failed to offer smart contact lenses for medical use. However, in general, the big tech companies have led a lot of development efforts around virtual and augmented reality. And Bloomberg News reported that Apple is working on lightweight augmented reality glasses, which it plans to release later this decade. And sometime next year, the company is also expected to release a mixed-reality head-worn device that was presented to its board of directors in May.
Facebook currently dominates sales of virtual reality devices with its Quest 2 headset. Meanwhile, Facebook is racing to launch its first augmented reality glasses in 2024, according to a report published in Verge in April.
The question now is: Why does augmented reality take longer? Because it combines digital elements with physical objects in a still-moving scene. This is a complex task that requires a lot of processing power. However, our desire to maintain at least one foot in the real world means that we are likely to spend more time in augmented reality in the long run.
The big problem here is how to balance real life with constantly looking at digital information. Today, it takes a few seconds to pull out the phone, launch an app, and perform a task on its screen. In the future, we’ll be able to access an app just by looking at it for an extra second. This in turn will raise several thorny issues about addiction and how we interact with the world around us.
Sinclair, for his part, explained that he was asked the same question years ago when he was working on the iPhone. “I can’t say how we’re going to work in (Mojo) to address that, but the mainstream is moving in that direction, where people will have instant access to information,” he said.
Whether using contact lenses or glasses, the human eye will see a world swimming in more digital information than ever before, and our brains will have a lot to get used to.
* In agreement with Bloomberg