‘I’m an Eye Doctor. Here’s Why You Should Consider Smart Contacts’

From allergy relief to night vision and virtual reality prescription lenses, this generation of contacts are coming to market to help you live better—not just see better.

Imagine exercising while your pulse metric flashes before your eyes in real-time, letting you know you’re in your target heart rate zone or taking a photo as you blink. Sound like something out of 2052?

It’s really not that futuristic. The new smart contact lenses, including those that emit antihistamines to treat seasonal allergies on the spot, are already here; while other smart contacts are in development. “A smart contact lens is a contact lens that gives you more than just the visual aspect,” explains Dr. Janelle Davison, an optometrist in Smyrna, GA. “Some smart contacts release medication, others may monitor important vital signs, and others still may promote wound healing.”

These lenses may have all sorts of capabilities built into them, including sensors, cameras, or batteries, depending on their functions. As technology advances, there is really no limit to what tomorrow’s contact lenses will be capable of doing, Dr. Davison says.

Here, Davison and other eye health experts tell The Healthy which smart contact lenses are already available, and which are soon in view.

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Contact lenses that correct nearsightedness in kids

Status: Available

CooperVision’s MiSight 1-day contact lenses are daily disposable soft lenses that correct blurry distance vision and slow the progression of myopia or nearsightedness in children aged eight to 12 years, explains Miami pediatric optometrist Eric Chow.

In addition to correcting vision, the CooperVision MiSight lenses stop or slow the progress of nearsightedness, Chow says: “Most of the patients I have on this lens have not progressed since being fit on this lens, while some have progressed at a much slower rate.” That’s all good news for kiddos.

Johnson & Johnson Vision’s Acuvue Abiliti orthokeratology lenses are also approved to stall the progression of nearsightedness in kids.

Contact lenses that treat allergies

Status: Available

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently gave their nod to the first contact lens that emits antihistamines to ease itchy eyes caused by allergies: Johnson & Johnson Vision Care’s Acuvue Theravision lenses.

These drug-eluting contacts contain ketotifen, an anti-allergy drug. They start to work in as few as three minutes, and relief lasts for up to 12 hours. “For people who have really bad eye allergies, a contact lens that offers slow, sustained release of an antihistamine during allergy season could be of benefit,” says Daniel Laroche, MD, director of glaucoma services and president of Advanced Eyecare of New York. “We do have pretty good eye drops for eye allergies, but some people need something stronger.”

These lenses can continue to be worn for vision correction after the medication wears off.

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Contacts that reduce digital eye strain

Status: Available

In addition to improving vision, Biofinity Energys from Coopervision eliminate the digital eye strain we all get from staring at our computers all day. “I’ve had some patients report relief of computer strain from this lens,” Chow says.

The Biofinity Energys lenses have curves across their face, which minimizes strain as you move your eye, and also feature better moisture retention to keep eyes moist since we blink less when we use digital devices, he says.

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Telescopic contact lenses

Status: In development

Some contacts in the pipeline can magnify images for people with low vision who can’t read or drive, and need to use a magnifying lens for up-close activities. “Telescopic contact lenses can help people with low vision caused by macular degeneration or other eye diseases,” Davison says.

Adds London-based optometrist Bhavin Shah: “Some researchers have been working on contact lenses that can zoom in like a telescope, which will be extremely helpful for the blind.”

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Virtual Reality Prescription Lenses

Status: In development

Dr. Shah also explains how one company, Mojo Vision, released a prototype of a virtual reality contact lens in March 2022. “So far the demonstrations have been mounted on a stand rather than being on the eye but this has been a milestone for microdisplays and the components needed for a VR/AR [virtual reality/augmented reality] contact lens. Eventually, the company hopes that people will wear them like regular contact lenses but with a computer display in your vision.”

Transition lenses

Status: Available

Some available contact lenses are smart enough to darken automatically in sunlight to reduce glare. “These can protect your eyes from the damaging effects of U.V. rays and block excess light, so you squint less in the sun” says Davison.

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Blood-sugar monitoring contacts for people with diabetes

Status: Back to the drawing board

Just about anyone who’s diabetic can imagine: how great would it be if you no longer needed to test your blood sugar with needles all day long? Enter blood-sugar monitoring contact lenses. “The goal is to measure blood glucose in your tear film and analyze it, but so far, tear film levels don’t correspond to blood levels,” Laroche says.

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Inflammation-fighting contact lenses

Status: In development

Corneal melting is a blinding eye condition that can occur due to autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, chemical burns, or even some surgeries. When you have this condition, the cornea (your eye’s transparent outer layer) melts due to the uncontrolled production of zinc-dependent enzymes called matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs), Laroche explains. “You need special organic compounds to break up MMPs.”

To that end, researchers at the University of New Hampshire developed a new hydrogel that deactivates those enzymes by removing the zinc ions to effectively treat corneal melting.

Wound-healing lenses

Status: Available

If you have ever scratched your cornea, you know it hurts…a lot. Contact lenses can serve as a bandage to help these tears heal. “These protect your eye and also help reduce pain by protecting your cornea from the rubbing of the blinking eyelids,” Laroche says.

Post-cataract surgery healing lenses

Status: In development

Cataracts occur when your eye’s natural lens becomes cloudy and causes blurry vision. Some people will need surgery to correct cataracts. “After cataract surgery, we use eyedrops for days or weeks, but placing a contact lens that emits an antibiotic and a steroid for sustained slow release and melts away after one or two weeks would mean no more eyedrops,” Laroche says.

Glaucoma-monitoring contact lenses

Status: In development

Glaucoma occurs when there is an increase in intraocular pressure inside the eye. Untreated glaucoma is one of the leading causes of blindness. Smart contacts with a sensor to check eye pressure are being developed to improve glaucoma management. “This technology would allow people with glaucoma to check their eye pressure at home instead of coming in every three to four months to have it checked by their eye doctor,” Davison says.

One such lens from Triggerfish features a wireless chip and miniaturized sensor that measures intraocular pressure for 24 hours, which can help doctors know if a treatment is working. “It will also be possible in the future to deliver a drug directly into the eye for treatment of glaucoma,” says Dr. Shah.

Performance-tracking contacts

Status: In development

Fully 74 percent of athletes rely on wearable tech to track performance data. Mojo has developed a lens that overlays images, symbols, and text on your natural field of vision without obstructing your view.

So far, the brand has partnered with Adidas Running for running and training, Trailforks for cycling and hiking outdoors, Wearable X for yoga, Slopes for snow sports, and 18Birdies for golf. The goal is to provide real-time stats to data-conscious athletes using a handful of sensors, a tiny processor, a microLED display, and a battery, which are built into the lens to detect eye movement. Users also get a neck-worn computer that communicates with the lens via proprietary wireless technology.

Camera lenses

Status: In development

Samsung and Sony have patents for contact lens models that feature built-in cameras and sensors controlled by blinking, and you can store these images on a wireless device. Says Shah: “The sensors can tell the difference between voluntary and involuntary blinks.”

Augmented reality lenses

Status: In development

These are the holy grail of smart contacts, Shah says. Samsung and other tech companies are exploring ways to project virtual images directly onto the eye, like Google Glass. “This could create a mixed-reality experience that’s especially helpful in navigation and could greatly enhance the close-point work of surgeons and emergency personnel,” he says. “Don’t get too excited, though: I think it will still be another two years before these products will hit the market.”

Power-generating contact lenses

Status: In development

Sony has applied for a patent on a smart contact that converts eye blinks into electrical power, while Novartis has been granted a patent on solar-powered smart lenses, Shah says.

Data storage contacts

Status: In development

Another Sony patent allows lens users to store images and video they record through their smart contacts, Shah says, adding: “This feature, along with facial recognition programming, could replace body cameras, making life safer for those serving in the military and police.”

Night vision contact lenses

Status: In development

How cool would it be to see at night without using a flashlight? The U.S. Defense Department and the University of Michigan are working on developing ultrathin light detectors that can sense wavelengths our eyes can’t see using heat vision technology, which is a type of night vision, Shah says.

Zooming contact lenses

Status: In development

Blink twice to zoom in. This is the premise and promise of new contact lenses being developed by researchers at the University of California, San Diego. They measured the electric signals generated when an eye moves up, down, left, and right, or blinks or double-blinks, and created a soft lens that responds directly to these electric impulses.

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Sources

Janelle Davison, optometrist, Smyrna, Georgia

Eric Chow, pediatric optometrist, Miami

Bhavin Shah, optometrist, London

Daniel Laroche, MD, director, glaucoma services, president, Advanced Eyecare of New York, NYC

ACS Biomaterials Science & Engineering -"Matrix Metalloproteinase-Deactivating Contact Lens for Corneal Melting"

Clinical Ophthalmology- "The Sensimed Triggerfish Contact Lens Sensor: Efficacy, safety and patient perspectives" 

Denise Mann, MS
Denise Mann is a freelance health writer whose articles regularly appear in WebMD, HealthDay, and other consumer health portals. She has received numerous awards, including the Arthritis Foundation's Northeast Region Prize for Online Journalism; the Excellence in Women's Health Research Journalism Award; the Journalistic Achievement Award from the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery; National Newsmaker of the Year by the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America; the Gold Award for Best Service Journalism from the Magazine Association of the Southeast; a Bronze Award from The American Society of Healthcare Publication Editors (for a cover story she wrote in Plastic Surgery Practice magazine); and an honorable mention in the International Osteoporosis Foundation Journalism Awards. She was part of the writing team awarded a 2008 Sigma Delta Chi award for her part in a WebMD series on autism. Her first foray into health reporting was with the Medical Tribune News Service, where her articles appeared regularly in such newspapers as the Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times, Dallas Morning News, and Los Angeles Daily News. Mann received a graduate degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and her undergraduate degree from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. She lives in New York with her husband David; sons Teddy and Evan; and their miniature schnauzer, Perri Winkle Blu.