How your contact lenses could talk to your phone

With interscatter technology, contact lenses could monitor blood sugar, credit cards could talk to each other

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Credit: CC0

Your contact lenses or a sensor implanted in your brain could some day send health updates to your smartphone and even your doctor.

A new technology called interscatter communication that's being developed at the University of Washington would allow small devices, such as contact lenses, implantable sensors and credit cards, to communicate with everyday devices, like smartphones and smart watches.

"Wireless connectivity for implanted devices can transform how we manage chronic diseases," said UW researcher Vikram Iyer, in a statement. "For example, a contact lens could monitor a diabetics blood sugar level in tears and send notifications to the phone when the blood sugar level goes down."

Researchers at the Seattle university built a few proof-of-concept demos for applications that previously had been impractical or impossible to create. One demonstration was for a smart contact lens and another was for an implantable neural recording device that could communicate directly with a smartphone or watch.

The research is funded by the National Science Foundation and Google Faculty Research Awards. Google has shown particular interest in the technology and was conducting its own research into smart contact lenses that can test diabetics' blood glucose levels two years ago.

Using wireless chips and miniaturized glucose sensors embedded between two layers of soft contact lens material, the smart lenses were being designed to test blood sugar levels in the user's tears.

When it announced the research in 2014, Google said its scientists were experimenting with using LED lights in the lenses to alert users if their glucose levels were off.

The UW research could solve the communications problem for many devices, including sensors and credit card, as well as contact lenses.

The interscatter communication works by converting Bluetooth signals into Wi-Fi transmissions over the air that can be picked up by a smartphone or smart watch. That enables these devices, which have very little power, to communicate with other devices without any extra equipment.

UW's research team, which is made up of computer scientists and electric engineers, said that by using common mobile devices to generate Wi-Fi signals, they can use 10,000 times less energy than they would using other communication methods.

"That means that we can use just as much bandwidth as a Wi-Fi network and you can still have other Wi-Fi networks operate without interference," said electrical engineering doctoral student and researcher Bryce Kellogg, in a statement.

Aside from the medical applications, the UW researchers said that interscatter communications also could be used to enable smart credit cards to communicate with each other.

For instance, if two people want to split a restaurant bill, they might simply tap their cards together to share the information.

"Providing the ability for these everyday objects like credit cards – in addition to implanted devices – to communicate with mobile devices can unleash the power of ubiquitous connectivity," said Shyam Gollakota, assistant professor of computer science and engineering at UW.

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