Science

Op-Ed: Augmented contact lenses – Another massive white elephant, major health hazard, or what? – Digital Journal


Under Peggy Johnson, Magic Leap has pivoted to developing augmented reality goggles for professionals, including surgeons – Copyright AFP CARLOS COSTA

The hype about augmented contact lenses is already at a ridiculous level. This is un-applied technology, and the actual value of it is highly debatable. On the other hand, there is a carrot for the sight-impaired, like me.

Big money is circling this tech, and the likely hazards of big money in new tech are obvious. Apple, Mojo Vision and others are already well into development. That said, we’re talking billions, and the upmarket new iPhone-like pricing likely to go with those billions.

Maybe not so bad, in some ways. I have enough respect for Apple’s engineers to think they’ll come up with something at least technologically respectable and functional. Mojo’s ideas are looking more interesting than “niche”, too. Good, efficient, dependable sight improvement is hardly likely to cause many complaints. …Except probably about prices for instantly-losable small tech essentials, etc.

OK so far, but there are issues.

Now let’s make a link between tech, sight improvement and a potential major health liability. Contact lenses can be trouble; big trouble, in fact, as I know from experience:

  • Protein can build up on them very quickly and easily. This protein can be destructive, impair lens function, and cause eye issues.
  • Cases of fungal infections related to contact lenses don’t make for pleasant reading, either. These infections can cause loss of sight.
  • Focal length issues definitely impact all types of contact lenses and wearers over time.
  • Conjunctivitis would be a truly horrible experience wearing these things. Could also do some damage, and cause repeat infections, because this condition is famous for repeats.

So a high-usage, constant-wear set of augmented contact lenses isn’t necessarily all gravy. These risks are endemic; unless you can totally proof them from these biohazards, they’re real potential problems.

Functionality? Maybe, but I’m not convinced.

I’ve just been watching a feelgood video about augmented contact lenses, and convinced, I definitely am not. Somewhat tired images of neural nets notwithstanding, the image of fine-point font information on the retina doesn’t inspire. Nor does the possibility of seeing people in other countries act as some sort of sales aphrodisiac.

Even less impressive is the fact that peripheral vision has to be overridden to look at the augmented images, which are in full center view. I’m quite sure engineers and ophthalmologists have thought of that, but consumers won’t. It’s a safety risk, in more than theory. If people can’t dodge cars looking at their phones, what about contact lenses?

The impression I’m getting is that these things could be worse nuisances than the Eternal Phone Interruption culture we all admire so much. “Another highly intrusive gizmo” is the default response.

This is repacking old tech into a wearable form. There might be a use for some of it, but around the clock? No, thanks.

Augmented what, exactly? Baked beans with links?

Augmented reality, or AR as we’re very originally calling it, supposedly serves some useful purpose. GPS-like AR is useful, sure. Now – What else have you got? AR, meanwhile, is still showing all the short-lived signs of Pokémon Go, some years back. Adding more fluff to reality isn’t necessarily a good commercial move.

Instead of cartoon characters, you get real people. So what? A mundane environment with or without augmentation is still a mundane environment. Crossing roads could be a problem, too as with Pokémon Go.

There are enough vacant-brained glued-to-phone fools around without more options for vacuous people. Apparently, nobody wants or needs time away from the interruptions?

Hard to agree with that view, pun intended. Nobody has time for every single thing that comes through any digital source. There’s a sort of Moore’s Law of Tech, other than the famous one. This is the Law of Increasing Technological Nuisances. The usual tendency is more inputs over time. So the poor AR contact lenses could become cluttered pretty easily, with the AR equivalent of email spam.

A bit of balance

To be strictly fair to the AR tech, there are possible major benefits:

  • Emergency alerts and contact links.
  • COVID-like safety and health hazard updates.
  • Personal tracking for people with care needs.
  • Effective, non-intrusive interactions with businesses, either as a customer or salesperson.
  • Any kind of preferred private personal notification system, quick and unintrusive.

What I’m saying is that this isn’t going to be simple. Nor is it likely to be cheap, at first. The hype could lead to a lot of lost investment money and truly godawful UX. Not the best for new tech of any kind. Interesting, yes. Convincing, at this stage, nothing like.



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