A sci-fi vision is coming into focus. On Tuesday, startup Mojo Vision detailed its progress on a tiny AR display it embeds in , providing a digital layer of information superimposed on what you see in the real world.
The Mojo Lens centerpiece is a hexagonal display less than half a millimeter wide, with each greenish pixel just a quarter of the width of a red blood cell. A "femtoprojector" -- a tiny magnification system -- expands the imagery optically and beams it to a central patch of the retina.
The lenses are ringed with electronics, including a camera that captures the outside world. A computer chip processes the imagery, controls the display and communicates wirelessly to external devices like a phone. A motion tracker that compensates for your eye's movement. The device is powered by a battery that's charged wirelessly overnight, like a smartwatch.
"We have got this almost working. It's very, very close," said Chief Technology Officer Mike Wiemer, detailing the design at the Hot Chips processor conference. Prototypes have passed toxicology tests, and Mojo expects a fully featured prototype this year.
Mojo's plan is to leapfrog clunky headwear, like Microsoft's HoloLens, that have begun incorporating AR. If it succeeds, Mojo Lens could help people with vision problems, for example by outlining letters in text or making curb edges more apparent. The product also could help athletes see how far they've biked or how fast their heart is beating without checking other devices.
AR, short for augmented reality, is a powerful technology that injects computing smarts into eyeglasses, smartphones and other devices. The technology adds a layer of information onto real world images, for example, showing a backhoe operator where cables are buried. So far, however, AR has been mostly limited to amusements like showing a movie character on a phone screen view of the real world.
Mojo Vision has a long way to go before its lenses hit shelves. The device will have to pass muster with regulators and overcome social discomfort. An earlier attempt to include AR in eyeglasses from search giant Google, called Google Glass, foundered as people worried about what was being recorded and shared.
"Societal acceptance will be hard to overcome simply because it will be nearly invisible to the unknowing person," said Moor Insights & Strategy analyst Anshel Sag.
But an unobtrusive contact lens is better than bulky AR headsets, Wiemer said: "There is a challenge here making these things small enough to be socially acceptable."
Another challenge will be battery life. Wiemer said he hoped to reach a one-hour life soon, but the company clarified after the talk that the plan was for a two-hour life while the contact lens was running full tilt, computationally. Typically people will use the contact lens only for moments at a time, so the effective battery life will be longer, the company said. "Mojo's goal for when it ships the product is for the wearer to have the lens on their eye all day and be able to access information regularly and then re-charge it overnight," the company said.
Verily, a subsidiary of Google parent company Alphabet, tried making a contact lens that could monitor glucose levels but ultimately scrapped the project. Closer to Mojo's product is a 2014 Google patent for a contact lens camera, but the company hasn't released any products. Another competing effort is Innovega's eMacula AR eyewear and contact lens technology.
Miniature electronics on your eye
A key part of the Mojo Lens is its eye tracking technology to monitor your eye's movement and adjust imagery accordingly. Without eye tracking, Mojo Lens would show a static image fixed to the center of your vision. If you flicked your gaze, instead of reading a long a line of text, for example, you'd just see the text block shift along with your eyes.
Mojo's eye tracking technology uses accelerometer and gyroscope technology drawn from the smartphone industry.
The Mojo Lens relies on an external device, called a relay accessory, to process and control imagery and provide a user interface.
The display and projector don't disturb your real-world vision. "You literally cannot see the display at all. It has no impact on your vision of the real world," Wiemer said. "You can read a book or watch a movie with your eyes closed."
The projector beams imagery only to the central portion of your retina, but the imagery is tied to your ever-shifting view of the real world and changes as you redirect your gaze. "Everywhere you look, display content is there. It really makes you feel like the canvas is infinite," Wiemer said.
Why computerize contact lenses?
The startup picked contact lenses as an AR display technology because 150 million people around the world already wear them. They're lightweight and don't fog up. When it comes to AR, they'll work even when your eyes are closed, too.
Mojo is developing its lenses with Japanese contact lens maker Menicon. It's raised $159 million so far from venture capitalists including New Enterprise Associates, Liberty Global Ventures and Khosla Ventures.
Mojo Vision has been demonstrating its contact lens technology since 2020. "It was like the world's smallest pair of smartglasses," my colleague Scott Stein said after holding it very close to his face.
The company hasn't said when it'll ship a product but on Tuesday said its technology is now "feature complete," meaning the company has all its necessary ingredients, including hardware and software.