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There has been so much hype about the “Internet of Things” (IoT) that it is refreshing to hear about a cutting-edge development project that can bring concrete benefits to millions of people. That project is the ongoing development of the Google Smart Contact Lens, and it was detailed in a keynote speech June 8 at the Design Automation Conference (DAC 2015).
The keynote speech was given by Brian Otis (right), a director at Google and a research associate professor at the University of Washington. The “smart lens” that the project envisions is essentially a disposable contact lens that fits on an eye and continuously monitors blood glucose levels. This is valuable information for anyone who has, or may someday have, diabetes.
Since he was speaking to an engineering audience, Otis focused on the challenges behind building such a device, and described some of the strategies taken by Google and its partner, Novartis. The project required new approaches to miniaturization, low-power design, and connectivity, as well as a comfortable and reliable silicon-to-human interface. Otis discussed the “why” as well and showed how the device could potentially save or improve millions of lives.
First, a bit of background. Google announced the smart lens project in a blog post in January 2014. Since then it has been featured in news outlets including Forbes, Time, and the Wall Street Journal. In March 2015, Time reported that Google has been granted a patent for a smart contact lens.
The smart lens monitors the level of blood glucose by looking at its concentration in tears. The lens includes a wireless system on chip (SoC) and a miniaturized glucose sensor. A tiny pinhole in the lens allows tear fluid to seep into the sensor, and a wireless antenna handles communications to the wireless devices.
“We figure that if we can solve a huge problem, it is probably worth doing,” Otis said. “Diabetes is one example.” He noted 382 million people worldwide have diabetes today, and that 35% of the U.S. population may be pre-diabetic. Today, diabetics must *** their fingers to test blood glucose levels, a procedure that is invasive, painful, and subject to infrequent monitoring.
According to Otis, the smart contact lens represents a “new category of wearable devices that are comfortable, inexpensive, and empowering.” The lens does sensor data logging and uses a portable instrument to measure glucose levels. It is thin, cheap, and disposable, he said.
Moreover, the lens is not just for people already diagnosed with diabetes—it’s for anyone who is pre-diabetic, or may be at risk due to genetic predisposition. “If we are pro-active rather than re-active,” Otis said, “Instead of waiting until a person has full-fledged diabetes, we could make a huge difference in peoples’ lives and lower the costs of treating them.”
No one has built anything quite like the smart lens, so researchers at Google and Novartis are treading new ground. Otis identified three key challenges:
Comfort is another concern. “This is not intended to be for the most severe cases,” Otis said. “This is intended to be for all of us as a pro-active way of improving our lifestyles.”
The platform provides a bidirectional encrypted wireless link, integrated power management, on-chip memory, standards-based RFID link, flexible sensor interface, high-resolution potentiostat sensor, and decoupling capacitors. Most of these capabilities are provided by the standard CMOS SoC, which is a couple hundred microns on a side and only “tens of microns” thick.
Otis noted that unpackaged ICs are typically 250 microns thick when they come back from the foundry. Thus, post-processing is needed so the IC will fit into a contact lens.
Furthermore, the design requires precision analog circuitry and additional environmental sensors. “Some of this stuff sounds mundane but it is really hard, especially when you find out you can’t throw large decoupling capacitors and bypass capacitors onto a board, and all that has to be re-integrated into the chip,” Otis said.
Getting information from the human body is challenging. The smart lens sensor does a direct chemical measurement on the surface of the eye. The sensor is designed to work with very low glucose concentrations. This is because the concentration of glucose in tears is an order of magnitude lower than it is in blood.
In brief, the sensor has two parallel plates that are coated with an enzyme that converts glucose into hydrogen peroxide, which flows around the electrodes of the sensor. This is actually a fairly standard way of doing glucose monitoring. However, the smart lens sensor has two electrodes compared to the typical three.
In manufacturing, it is essential to keep costs low. Otis outlined a three-step manufacturing process:
Beyond the technical challenges are the “clinical” challenges of working with human beings. The human body “is messy and very variable,” Otis said. This variability affects sensor performance and calibration, RF/electro-magnetic performance, system reliability, and comfort.
The final step is making use of the data. “We need to get the data from the device into a phone, and then display it so users can visualize the data,” Otis said. This provides “actionable feedback” to the person who needs it. Eventually, the data will need to be stored in the cloud.
As he concluded his talk, Otis noted that the platform his group developed may have many applications beyond glucose monitoring. “There is a lot you can do with a bunch of logic and sensing capability,” he said, “and there are hundreds of biomarkers beyond glucose.” Clearly this will be an interesting technology to watch.
- Gary Smith at DAC 2015: How EDA Can Expand Into New Directions