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A single contact lens could give your entire life a head-up display

Mojo Vision's smart contacts put text in my eye and let me see in the dark. The company is aiming for even more than that.

MOJO AR contact lens

That green dot? That's the display.

James Martin/CNET

There aren't many meetings in Las Vegas during CES that still make my jaw drop. The few I can think of mostly involved Oculus. I had no idea what a company I've never met with before, called Mojo Vision, was going to show me. I knew they made very, very small displays. I knew the company was pursuing some sort of AR contact lens. They weren't even officially a part of CES. You can see why I was intrigued.

At a suite at the Palazzo hotel in Las Vegas, I approached a table where a single contact lens lay in a case. This lens had some circuitry embedded in it, and at the center, there was a tiny dot. I held the lens in my hand. This was it. Without a doubt, the smallest piece of tech I've ever demoed.

I didn't actually get to stick this lens in my eye. Mojo wouldn't allow it yet. Instead, I held up a transparent plastic wand with the lens mounted on it. I held it very, very close to my eye, as I stared at a projected screen in front of me. And through a pin-sized glowing green dot, I saw text, displayed in a demo loop. The time. A sports score. The weather. Health data, like heart rate. A message, as if sent from a friend. It was like the world's smallest pair of smartglasses, right in my eye. A smart contact lens. This is what Mojo Vision is gunning for, and it feels... well, it feels like tech that came from the year 2020.

Now playing: Watch this: First look at a tiny display made to sit on your eye
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"We didn't want to get overhyped and show something that was just vaporware," says Steve Sinclair, vice president of product and marketing at Mojo Vision. Sinclair has a background that includes the original iPhone launch at Apple, and vice president of product marketing at Motorola Mobility during the launch of the Moto 360, Moto Hint earbuds, and Moto X under Rick Osterloh (now head of Google's hardware).

Mojo Vision's team has backgrounds from companies across tech and health care, including Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Philips Healthcare, Zeiss Ophthalmology and Johnson & Johnson. "We've been hard at work creating the world's first true smart contact lens, and by true we mean it really builds in all the capabilities of a solution that you can wear all day, and project augmented reality information to the wearer whenever you need it," Sinclair said.

MOJO AR contact lens

The eye demo. I'm seeing text. Text is in my eye.

James Martin/CNET

What, exactly, is going on here? Mojo Vision, a company founded in 2017, has been in stealth for years, promising a seemingly impossible set of smart AR contact lenses. After showing off the display tech at CNET last year, this is the first time the company's smart lenses have been revealed. Mojo Vision is still years away from its goal of a viable consumer-ready, FDA-approved version of its lens. What I'm looking at is the very first prototype demo of the Mojo Lens, a preview of the first of several steps the company wants to make before these are ready.

These contact lenses won't just display text; they'll sense objects, track eye motion, have an eye-controlled interface that will access data like a smartwatch or smartglasses, and... they'll see in the dark. They're not just meant to give everyday people James Bond powers in their eyes; they're really looking to assist people whose vision impairment could use help, like those with macular degeneration.

"We've been very focused on this concept we call invisible computing," Sinclair says about Mojo Vision. "Which is the idea that I get information when I need it, and the technology fades away when I don't."

MOJO AR contact lens

The Mojo Lens prototype. It's that small.

James Martin/CNET

The extremely high-density monochrome MicroLED display inside Mojo Vision's lens feels impossibly small. When I look at text, I can see the pixels, but it works for basic information. Mojo's planning for a multicolor display next, and with two lenses in, images could be stereoscopic. My single-lens experience is more like an incredibly shrunken-down version of single-eye smartglasses. It's like Google Glass, but actually in my eye. CNET looked at Mojo Vision's microscopic 14,000ppi MicroLED display last year; you can see it up close that story, but in my demo I wasn't allowed to look at the tech under a microscope.

mojovision2

Mojo's incredibly dense and small MicroLED under a microscope from a demo last year; what I saw wasn't exactly like this, but it was close.

Mojo Vision

There's nothing that quite describes what it's like to see the display through my eye. Because it's so close and so small, reading text works even without glasses and with my terrible myopic vision. The display appears in my pupil's field of vision, hovering. The closest thing I've ever seen to it was North Focals smartglasses, which retinally projected a display that only appeared when I was looking forward. Mojo Vision's lens display, however, could follow my eye everywhere, because it would be on my cornea.

"The Mojo Lens will be able to help people who have low-vision conditions, like macular degeneration, glaucoma, retinitis pigmentosa, which is a type of tunnel vision, night blindness," Sinclair said. "We've built a lens that can help them, but it can also give those of us that don't have those conditions, in a way, superpowers to be able to see things that you otherwise wouldn't be able to see."

This is when I'm told I'll be stepping into a room to see in the dark.

mojo-deer-xing

Street signs in my night vision demo. It was pitch-black when I read them.

Scott Stein/CNET

My next demo takes place in the hotel suite's adjoining bedroom, which is covered in street signs placed on the bed and on chairs. I'm handed another lens prototype, using tech that isn't on the standalone smart lens yet but will be sometime later this year.

This early version is still mounted on a phone-size processing unit, which I hold as I peek through the lens mounted on a small wand. Now the lights are turned off, making everything pitch-dark... and I can see, etched in green, the street signs and the face of the person giving me the demo. I'm seeing in the dark with a magic contact lens on a stick.

mojolensassembly

What Mojo Vision's smart contacts will eventually look like: processing and image sensors, under an artificial iris.

Mojo Vision

A years-long path ahead

Mojo's team shows me a long box with previous versions of the lens prototype going back to the company's founding in 2017, and future mockups of where the contact lens design is heading next. While the lens I put on my fingertip is nearly all transparent now, in upcoming designs there's considerably more tech added. Areas around the pupil are filled in with components (battery, processor elements), where a colored-in fake iris will mask some of the future hardware: edge detection, a tiny image sensor and motion tracking, too. It feels like staring at parts of a future cyborg.

Right now, the smart lens is mainly just showing off the company's miraculously small display, but with the other demos I can get a sense of where added computer vision and motion tracking might be going.

Mojo Vision doesn't have a lens to show off how information can be pulled out of the air in its future interface, but I try a VR demo on an eye-tracking HTC Vive Pro that shows how a glowing green ring around my vision's periphery comes into view when I glance at edges, bringing up notifications in one area, weather in another. It's like an eye-tracking smartwatch interface.

Mojo Vision's team has already been wearing this early smart contact lens prototype in-eye, Sinclair tells me, which already allows proper oxygenation and is wearable as a microdisplay. (I'm not allowed to do this in my hotel suite demo.) But Mojo Vision plans to have its first in-eye demo ready later this year, adding extra motion-tracking and image-sensing functions. Power on the Mojo Lens protototype is delivered wirelessly right now; eventually, a tiny battery will live on the lens itself, along with a 5GHz radio that will transmit data.

I can't imagine putting something like this in my eye: It's not quite an implant, but it's far more intimate than any other wearable tech I've ever tried. Will it be safe? Will I be ok?

Mojo Vision is completely geared toward FDA clearance and becoming a medically approved optical device. It's already received an FDA Breakthrough Device designation, earmarked for companies working on assistive devices for debilitating or life-threatening conditions, which will help fast-track the approval. Mojo intends to have its smart contacts assist those with visual impairments like macular degeneration, and is already partnering with Palo Alto's Vista Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

According to Mojo Vision, the Mojo Lens' future ability to magnify text, highlight edges of objects, adjust contrast or even provide other assistance (captions, for instance, or translation) will be what makes these lenses into true vision-assistive devices.

Mojo is planning to make these lenses in prescriptions, too; the company has in-house optometrists, and Sinclair admits that this whole project requires the lenses to be FDA-approved, like any contact lenses in the US. Mojo Vision's vice president of medical devices, Dr. Kuang-mon (Ashley) Tuan, who has developed contact lens technology for two decades with other companies, tells me that taking the product through R&D into a safe product is her main goal. "I've shipped three different kinds of contact lenses. We have three optometrists in-house -- two of us are contact lens industry veterans," Tuan tells me. "We have to make sure that this is safe," Sinclair emphasizes.

My grandfather had macular degeneration, and had to use a clunky computer and a massive magnifying screen to read things back in the '90s, before the iPhone. The idea of technology like this would have stunned him. It stuns me.

I don't know what the long-term viability of Mojo Vision's smart lenses is. I've only had one demo in a hotel suite in Las Vegas. But I've needed the last week to process all of this, because the possibilities feel wilder than anything I've experienced before. I wouldn't even call these lenses augmented reality. They feel, instead, like something bionic.

Originally published Jan. 16.
Update, Jan. 24: Adds video.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.