Imagine a world without screens. Instead of endlessly staring at your computer or craning your neck down to scroll through social media feeds and emails, information simply appears in front of your eyes when you need it and disappears when you don't.
"The vision is super clear...I was reading the poem with my eyes closed."
No more rude interruptions during dinner, no more bumping into people on the street while trying to follow GPS directions — just the information you want, when you need it, projected directly onto your visual field.
While this screenless future sounds like science fiction, it may soon be a reality thanks to the new Silicon Valley startup Mojo Vision, creator of the world's first smart contact lens. With a 14,000 pixel-per-inch display with eye-tracking, image stabilization, and a custom wireless radio, the Mojo smart lens bills itself the "smallest and densest dynamic display ever made." Unlike current augmented reality wearables such as Google Glass or ThirdEye, which project images onto a glass screen, the Mojo smart lens can project images directly onto the retina.
A current prototype displayed at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year in Las Vegas includes a tiny screen positioned right above the most sensitive area of the pupil. "[The Mojo lens] is a contact lens that essentially has wireless power and data transmission for a small micro LED projector that is placed over the center of the eye," explains David Hobbs, Director of Product Management at Mojo Vision. "[It] displays critical heads-up information when you need it and fades into the background when you're ready to continue on with your day."
Eventually, Mojo Visions' technology could replace our beloved smart devices but the first generation of the Mojo smart lens will be used to help the 2.2 billion people globally who suffer from vision impairment.
"If you think of the eye as a camera [for the visually impaired], the sensors are not working properly," explains Dr. Ashley Tuan, Vice President of Medical Devices at Mojo Vision and fellow of the American Academy of Optometry. "For this population, our lens can process the image so the contrast can be enhanced, we can make the image larger, magnify it so that low-vision people can see it or we can make it smaller so they can check their environment." In January of this year, the FDA granted Breakthrough Device Designation to Mojo, allowing them to have early and frequent discussions with the FDA about technical, safety and efficacy topics before clinical trials can be done and certification granted.
For now, Dr. Tuan is one of the few people who has actually worn the Mojo lens. "I put the contact lens on my eye. It was very comfortable like any contact lenses I've worn before," she describes. "The vision is super clear and then when I put on the accessories, suddenly I see Yoda in front of me and I see my vital signs. And then I have my colleague that prepared a beautiful poem that I loved when I was young [and] I was reading the poem with my eyes closed."
At the moment, there are several electronic glasses on the market like Acesight and Nueyes Pro that provide similar solutions for those suffering from visual impairment, but they are large, cumbersome, and highly visible. Mojo lens would be a discreet, more comfortable alternative that offers users more freedom of movement and independence.
"In the case of augmented-reality contact lenses, there could be an opportunity to improve the lives of people with low vision," says Dr. Thomas Steinemann, spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology and professor of ophthalmology at MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland. "There are existing tools for people currently living with low vision—such as digital apps, magnifiers, etc.— but something wearable could provide more flexibility and significantly more aid in day-to-day tasks."
As one of the first examples of "invisible computing," the potential applications of Mojo lens in the medical field are endless.
According to Dr. Tuan, the visually impaired often suffer from depression due to their lack of mobility and 70 percent of them are underemployed. "We hope that they can use this device to gain their mobility so they can get that social aspect back in their lives and then, eventually, employment," she explains. "That is our first and most important goal."
But helping those with low visual capabilities is only Mojo lens' first possible medical application; augmented reality is already being used in medicine and is poised to revolutionize the field in the coming decades. For example, Accuvein, a device that uses lasers to provide real-time images of veins, is widely used by nurses and doctors to help with the insertion of needles for IVs and blood tests.
According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, augmentation of reality has been used in surgery for many years with surgeons using devices such as Google Glass to overlay critical information about their patients into their visual field. Using software like the Holographic Navigation Platform by Scopsis, surgeons can see a mixed-reality overlay that can "show you complicated tumor boundaries, assist with implant placements and guide you along anatomical pathways," its developers say.
However, according to Dr. Tuan, augmented reality headsets have drawbacks in the surgical setting. "The advantage of [Mojo lens] is you don't need to worry about sweating or that the headset or glasses will slide down to your nose," she explains "Also, our lens is designed so that it will understand your intent, so when you don't want the image overlay it will disappear, it will not block your visual field, and when you need it, it will come back at the right time."
As one of the first examples of "invisible computing," the potential applications of Mojo lens in the medical field are endless. Possibilities include live translation of sign language for deaf people; helping those with autism to read emotions; and improving doctors' bedside manner by allowing them to fully engage with patients without relying on a computer.
"[By] monitoring those blood vessels we can [track] chronic disease progression: high blood pressure, diabetes, and Alzheimer's."
Furthermore, the lens could be used to monitor health issues. "We have image sensors in the lens right now that point to the world but we can have a camera pointing inside of your eye to your retina," says Dr. Tuan, "[By] monitoring those blood vessels we can [track] chronic disease progression: high blood pressure, diabetes, and Alzheimer's."
For the moment, the future medical applications of the Mojo lens are still theoretical, but the team is confident they can eventually become a reality after going through the proper regulatory review. The company is still in the process of design, prototype and testing of the lens, so they don't know exactly when it will be available for use, but they anticipate shipping the first available products in the next couple of years. Once it does go to market, it will be available by prescription only for those with visual impairments, but the team's goal is to bring it to broader consumer markets pending regulatory clearance.
"We see that right now there's a unique opportunity here for Mojo lens and invisible computing to help to shape what the next decade of technology development looks like," explains David Hobbs. "We can use [the Mojo lens] to better serve us as opposed to us serving technology better."
This past March, headlines suddenly flooded the Internet about a startup company called Nectome. Founded by two graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the new company was charging people $10,000 to join a waiting list to have their brains embalmed, down to the last neuron, using an award-winning chemical compound.
While the lay public presumably burnt their wills and grew ever more excited about the end of humanity's quest for immortality, neurologists let out a collective sigh.
Essentially, participants' brains would turn to a substance like glass and remain in a state of near-perfect preservation indefinitely. "If memories can truly be preserved by a sufficiently good brain banking technique," Nectome's website explains, "we believe that within the century it could become feasible to digitize your preserved brain and use that information to recreate your mind." But as with most Faustian bargains, Nectome's proposition came with a serious caveat -- death.
That's right, in order for Nectome's process to properly preserve your connectome, the comprehensive map of the brain's neural connections, you must be alive (and under anesthesia) while the fluid is injected. This way, the company postulates, when the science advances enough to read and extract your memories someday, your vitrified brain will still contain your perfectly preserved essence--which can then be digitally recreated as a computer simulation.
Almost immediately this story gained buzz with punchy headlines: "Startup wants to upload your brain to the cloud, but has to kill you to do it," "San Junipero is real: Nectome wants to upload your brain," and "New tech firm promises eternal life, but you have to die."
While the lay public presumably burnt their wills and grew ever more excited about the end of humanity's quest for immortality, neurologists let out a collective sigh -- hype had struck the scientific community once again.
The truth about Nectome is that its claims are highly speculative and no hard science exists to suggest that our connectome is the key to our 'being,' nor that it can ever be digitally revived. "We haven't come even close to understanding even the most basic types of functioning in the brain," says neuroscientist Alex Fox, who was educated at the University of Queensland in Australia. "Memory storage in the brain is only a theoretical concept [and] there are some seriously huge gaps in our knowledge base that stand in the way of testing [the connectome] theory."
After the Nectome story broke, Harvard computational neuroscientist Sam Gershman tweeted out:
"Didn't anyone tell them that we've known the C Elegans (a microscopic worm) connectome for over a decade but haven't figured out how to reconstruct all of their memories? And that's only 7000 synapses compared to the trillions of synapses in the human brain!"
Hype can come from researchers themselves, who are under an enormous amount of pressure to publish original work and maintain funding.
How media coverage of Nectome went from an initial fastidiously researched article in the MIT Technology Review by veteran science journalist Antonio Regalado to the click-bait frenzy it became is a prime example of the 'science hype' phenomenon. According to Adam Auch, who holds a doctorate in philosophy from Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada, "Hype is a feature of all stages of the scientific dissemination process, from the initial circulation of preliminary findings within particular communities of scientists, to the process by which such findings come to be published in peer-reviewed journals, to the subsequent uptake these findings receive from the non-specialist press and the general public."
In the case of Nectome, hype was present from the word go. Riding the high of several major wins, including having raised over one million dollars in funding and partnering with well-known MIT neurologist Edward Boyden, Nectome founders Michael McCanna and Robert McIntyre launched their website on March 1, 2018. Just one month prior, they were able to purchase and preserve a newly deceased corpse in Portland, Oregon, showing that vitrifixation, their method of chemical preservation, could be used on a human specimen. It had previously won an award for preserving every synaptic structure on a rabbit brain.
The Nectome mission statement, found on its website, is laced with saccharine language that skirts the unproven nature of the procedure the company is peddling for big bucks: "Our mission is to preserve your brain well enough to keep all its memories intact: from that great chapter of your favorite book to the feeling of cold winter air, baking an apple pie, or having dinner with your friends and family."
This rhetoric is an example of hype that can come from researchers themselves, who are under an enormous amount of pressure to publish original work and maintain funding. As a result, there is a constant push to present science as "groundbreaking" when really, as is apparently the case with Nectome, it is only a small piece in a much larger effort.
Calling out the audacity of Nectome's posited future, neuroscientist Gershman commented to another publication, "The important question is whether the connectome is sufficient for memory: Can I reconstruct all memories knowing only the connections between neurons? The answer is almost certainly no, given our knowledge about how memories are stored (itself a controversial topic)."
The former home page of Nectome's website, which has now been replaced by a statement titled, "Response to recent press."
Furthermore, universities like MIT, who entered into a subcontract with Nectome, are under pressure to seek funding through partnerships with industry as a result of the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980. Also known as the Patent and Trademark Law Amendments Act, this piece of legislation allows universities to commercialize inventions developed under federally funded research programs, like Nectome's method of preserving brains, formally called Aldehyde-Stabilized Cryopreservation.
"[Universities use] every incentive now to talk about innovation," explains Dr. Ivan Oransky, president of the Association of Health Care Journalists and co-founder of retractionwatch.com, a blog that catalogues errors and fraud in published research. "Innovation to me is often a fancy word for hype. The role of journalists should not be to glorify what universities [say, but to] tell the closest version of the truth they can."
In this case, a combination of the hyperbolic press, combined with some impressively researched expose pieces, led MIT to cut its ties with Nectome on April 2nd, 2018, just two weeks after the news of their company broke.
The solution to the dangers of hype, experts say, is a more scientifically literate public—and less clickbait-driven journalism.
Because of its multi-layered nature, science hype carries several disturbing consequences. For one, exaggerated coverage of a discovery could mislead the public by giving them false hope or unfounded worry. And media hype can contribute to a general mistrust of science. In these instances, people might, as Auch puts it, "fall back on previously held beliefs, evocative narratives, or comforting biases instead of well-justified scientific evidence."
All of this is especially dangerous in today's 'fake news' era, when companies or political parties sow public confusion for their own benefit, such as with global warming. In the case of Nectome, the danger is that people might opt to end their lives based off a lacking scientific theory. In fact, the company is hoping to enlist terminal patients in California, where doctor-assisted suicide is legal. And 25 people have paid the $10,000 to join Nectome's waiting list, including Sam Altman, president of the famed startup accelerator Y Combinator. Nectome now has offered to refund the money.
Founders McCanna and McIntyre did not return repeated requests for comment for this article. A new statement on their website begins: "Vitrifixation today is a powerful research tool, but needs more research and development before anyone considers applying it in a context other than research."
The solution to the dangers of hype, experts say, is a more scientifically literate public—and less clickbait-driven journalism. Until then, it seems that companies like Nectome will continue to enjoy at least 15 minutes of fame.