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."
Jessica Ware is obsessed with bugs.
My guest today is a leading researcher on insects, the president of the Entomological Society of America and a curator at the American Museum of Natural History. Learn more about her here.
You may not think that insects and human health go hand-in-hand, but as Jessica makes clear, they’re closely related. A lot of people care about their health, and the health of other creatures on the planet, and the health of the planet itself, but researchers like Jessica are studying another thing we should be focusing on even more: how these seemingly separate areas are deeply entwined. (This is the theme of an upcoming event hosted by Leaps.org and the Aspen Institute.)
Listen to the Episode
Entomologist Jessica Ware
D. Finnin / AMNH
Maybe it feels like a core human instinct to demonize bugs as gross. We seem to try to eradicate them in every way possible, whether that’s with poison, or getting out our blood thirst by stomping them whenever they creep and crawl into sight.
But where did our fear of bugs really come from? Jessica makes a compelling case that a lot of it is cultural, rather than in-born, and we should be following the lead of other cultures that have learned to live with and appreciate bugs.
The truth is that a healthy planet depends on insects. You may feel stung by that news if you hate bugs. Reality bites.
Jessica and I talk about whether learning to live with insects should include eating them and gene editing them so they don’t transmit viruses. She also tells me about her important research into using genomic tools to track bugs in the wild to figure out why and how we’ve lost 50 percent of the insect population since 1970 according to some estimates – bad news because the ecosystems that make up the planet heavily depend on insects. Jessica is leading the way to better understand what’s causing these declines in order to start reversing these trends to save the insects and to save ourselves.
The first thing Jeroen Perk saw after he partially regained his sight nearly a decade ago was the outline of his guide dog Pedro.
“There was a white floor, and the dog was black,” recalls Perk, a 43-year-old investigator for the Dutch customs service. “I was crying. It was a very nice moment.”
Perk was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa as a child and had been blind since early adulthood. He has been able to use the implant placed into his retina in 2013 to help identify street crossings, and even ski and pursue archery. A video posted by the company that designed and manufactured the device indicates he’s a good shot.
Less black-and-white has been the journey Perk and others have been on after they were implanted with the Argus II, a second-generation device created by a Los Angeles-based company called Second Sight Medical Devices.
The Argus II uses the implant and a video camera embedded in a special pair of glasses to provide limited vision to those with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disease that causes cells in the retina to deteriorate. The camera feeds information to the implant, which sends electrical impulses into the retina to recapitulate what the camera sees. The impulses appear in the Argus II as a 60-pixel grid of blacks, grays and whites in the user’s eye that can render rough outlines of objects and their motion.
Smartphone and computer manufacturers typically stop issuing software upgrades to their devices after two or three years, eventually rendering them bricks. But is the smartphone approach acceptable for a device that helps restore the most crucial sense a human being possesses?
Ross Doerr, a retired disability rights attorney in Maine who received an Argus II in 2019, describes the field of vision as the equivalent of an index card held at arm’s length. Perk often brings objects close to his face to decipher them. Moreover, users must swivel their heads to take in visual data; moving their eyeballs does not work.
Despite its limitations, the Argus II beats the alternative. Perk no longer relies on his guide dog. Doerr was uplifted when he was able to see the outlines of Christmas trees at a holiday show.
“The fairy godmother department sort of reaches out and taps you on the shoulder once in a while,” Doerr says of his implant, which came about purely by chance. A surgeon treating his cataracts was partnered with the son of another surgeon who was implanting the devices, and he was referred.
Doerr had no reason to believe the shower of fairy dust wouldn’t continue. Second Sight held out promises that the Argus II recipients’ vision would gradually improve through upgrades to much higher pixel densities. The ability to recognize individual faces was even touted as a possibility. In the winter of 2020, Doerr was preparing to travel across the U.S. to Second Sight’s headquarters to receive an upgrade. But then COVID-19 descended, and the trip was canceled.
The pandemic also hit Second Sight’s bottom line. Doerr found out about its tribulations only from one of the company’s vision therapists, who told him the entire department was being laid off. Second Sight cut nearly 80% of its workforce in March 2020 and announced it would wind down operations.
Ross Doerr has mostly stopped using his Argus II, the result of combination of fear of losing its assistance from wear and tear and disdain for the company that brought it to market.
Second Sight’s implosion left some 350 Argus recipients in the metaphorical dark about what to do if their implants failed. Skeleton staff seem to have rarely responded to queries from their customers, at least based on the experiences of Perk and Doerr. And some recipients have unfortunately returned to the actual dark as well, as reports have surfaced of Argus II failures due to aging or worn-down parts.
Product support for complex products is remarkably uneven. Although the iconic Ford Mustang ceased production in the late 1960s, its parts market is so robust that it’s theoretically possible to assemble a new vehicle from recently crafted components. Conversely, smartphone and computer manufacturers typically stop issuing software upgrades to their devices after two or three years, eventually rendering them bricks. Consumers have accepted both extremes.
But is the smartphone approach acceptable for a device that helps restore the most crucial sense a human being possesses?
Margaret McLean, a senior fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California, notes companies like Second Sight have a greater obligation for product support than other consumer product ventures.
“In this particular case, you have a great deal of risk that is involved in using this device, the implant, and the after care of this device,” she says. “You cannot, like with your car, decide that ‘I don’t like my Mustang anymore,’ and go out and buy a Corvette.”
And, whether the Argus II implant works or not, its physical presence can impact critical medical decisions. Doerr’s doctor wanted him to undergo an MRI to assist in diagnosing attacks of vertigo. But the physician was concerned his implant might interfere. With the latest available manufacturer advisories on his implant nearly a decade old, the procedure was held up. Doerr spent months importuning Second Sight through phone calls, emails and Facebook postings to learn if his implant was contraindicated with MRIs, which he never received. Although the cause of his vertigo was found without an MRI, Doerr was hardly assured.
“Put that into context for a minute. I get into a serious car accident. I end up in the emergency room, and I have a tag saying I have an implanted medical device,” he says. “You can’t do an MRI until you get the proper information from the company. Who’s going to answer the phone?”
Second Sight’s management did answer the call to revamp its business. It netted nearly $78 million through a private stock placement and an initial public offering last year. At the end of 2021, Second Sight had nearly $70 million in cash on hand, according to a recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
And while the Argus II is still touted at length on Second Sight’s home page, it appears little of its corporate coffers are earmarked toward its support. These days, the company is focused on obtaining federal approvals for Orion, a new implant that would go directly into the recipient’s brain and could be used to remedy blindness from a variety of causes. It obtained a $6.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health in May 2021 to help develop Orion.
Presented with a list of written questions by email, Second Sight’s spokesperson, Dave Gentry of the investor relations firm Red Chip Companies, copied a subordinate with an abrupt message to “please handle.” That was the only response from a company representative. A call to Second Sight acting chief executive officer Scott Dunbar went unreturned.
Whether or not the Orion succeeds remains to be seen. The company’s SEC filings suggest a viable and FDA-approved device is years away, and that operational losses are expected for the “foreseeable future.” Second Sight reported zero revenue in 2020 or 2021.
Moreover, the experiences of the Argus II recipients could color the reception of future Second Sight products. Doerr notes that his insurer paid nearly $500,000 to implant his device and for training on how to use it.
“What’s the insurance industry going to say the next time this crops up?” Doerr asks, noting that the company’s reputation is “completely shot” with the recipients of its implants.
Perk, who made speeches to praise the Argus II and is still featured in a video on the Second Sight website, says he also no longer supports the company.
Jeroen Perk, an investigator for the Dutch customs service, cried for joy after partially regaining his sight, but he no longer trusts Second Sight, the company that provided his implant.
Nevertheless, Perk remains highly reliant on the technology. When he dropped an external component of his device in late 2020 and it broke, Perk briefly debated whether to remain blind or find a way to get his Argus II working again. Three months later, he was able to revive it by crowdsourcing parts, primarily from surgeons with spare components or other Argus II recipients who no longer use their devices. Perk now has several spare parts in reserve in case of future breakdowns.
Despite the frantic efforts to retain what little sight he has, Perk has no regrets about having the device implanted. And while he no longer trusts Second Sight, he is looking forward to possibly obtaining more advanced implants from companies in the Netherlands and Australia working on their own products.
Doerr suggests that biotech firms whose implants are distributed globally be bound to some sort of international treaty requiring them to service their products in perpetuity. Such treaties are still applied to the salvage rights for ships that sunk centuries ago, he notes.
“I think that in a global tech economy, that would be a good thing,” says McLean, the fellow at Santa Clara, “but I am not optimistic about it in the near term. Business incentives push toward return on share to stockholders, not to patients and other stakeholders. We likely need to rely on some combination of corporately responsibility…and [international] government regulation. It’s tough—the Paris Climate Accord implementation at a slow walk comes to mind.”
Unlike Perk, Doerr has mostly stopped using his Argus II, the result of combination of fear of losing its assistance from wear and tear and disdain for the company that brought it to market. At 70, Doerr says he does not have the time or energy to hold the company more accountable. And with Second Sight having gone through a considerable corporate reorganization, Doerr believes a lawsuit to compel it to better serve its Argus recipients would be nothing but an extremely costly longshot.
“It’s corporate America at its best,” he observes.