Google locks future wearable IP with smart lens patents
Last month, the Patent Bolt website revealed the company’s patent application for contact lenses with an integrated camera system, controlled by the wearer through unique blinking patterns.
The patent is wide encompassing, describing a multi-sensor contact lens computer system that may work with many future wearable devices and other consumer electronics.
While a number of companies and research centres work on smart lenses with integrated health monitoring sensors, displays or optical to electrical stimuli conversion concepts (via external video capture and processing for visual interpretation), Google bets on yet to come integration breakthroughs with a rather open-ended patent application to safeguard as much wearable IP as possible.
The components are certainly not ready for building a thin-film camera to be embedded within a contact lens, nor the specific actuators or sensors that would interpret blinking patterns and process it locally, but the on-going research in flexible electronics and printable circuits promises that someday, it may be possible to combine all the relevant building blocks for such a smart device.
Trying to bulk itself up, the patent somehow states the obvious, that the building blocks would be positioned in visually non-obstructive areas of the lens (around the pupil). The camera component would be aligned so as to track and generate image data corresponding to the gaze of the wearer, following any shift in gaze.
Then the patent extends on what could be done with such a lens-mounted camera, from merely detecting light (what looks more like current state-of-the-art printed flexible electronics), to identifying colours or performing plain face recognition or any other video processing task. The sensors that would be integrated on such smart lenses could be just anything the company would see fit, including photodiodes, humidity sensors or energy harvesters.
Google may not have the IP to build the actual sensing blocks and circuitry, but if this patent was ever granted, it would somehow prevent any company with the suitable technologies to strike a deal with competing smart lens developers, or at least it would shrink their marketable options.
I suppose that’s ok to have Google as a licensee, except if the company’s patented smart lenses are only a strategy to give more life to its current Google Glass while preventing agile startups and research lab spin-offs from coming up with better alternatives.