Google's smart contact lenses: Could have been Microsoft

Computer-infused contact lenses fit in with the sci-fi ethos of the Google[x] project. But guess what -- Microsoft backed the research three years earlier.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
2 min read
Microsoft had supported Babak Parviz's research into chip-enabled contact lenses that could detect diabetes-related high blood sugar levels.
In 2011, Microsoft supported Babak Parviz's research into chip-enabled contact lenses that could detect diabetes-related high blood sugar levels. screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Google is the only big tech company that's visionary and disruptive enough to back an idea like the smart contact lenses to help diabetics monitor blood-sugar levels, right?

Wrong. Microsoft, that dowdy old has-been (at least in Silicon Valley conventional wisdom), was involved in the very same project in 2011. Project co-founder Babak Parviz, who today also leads Google Glass, previously worked on the contact-lens idea while at the University of Washington, cooperating with Microsoft.

The project, at that time clearly at an earlier stage of maturity, is the centerpiece of a Microsoft video spotlighting the idea of a natural user interface that lets people work with computers without even knowing it. The contact lenses include a tiny microprocessor that could judge glucose levels in tears, then beam that information wirelessly to a device that could process the data and display results.

"People were not convinced that this was doable. A lot of people considered it science fiction," Parviz said in the Microsoft video. But Desney Tan of Microsoft Research had faith. "Desney and Microsoft Research were early on convinced that this was a worthy cause. They were willing to work with us and support us. We're very grateful they did that."

Google[x] researchers therefore aren't the only one that saw the potential for the technology. But while Microsoft may get some bragging rights here, you can't overlook the fact that Google is the company that hired Parviz and that is pursuing the contact lenses as well as Glass.

And so it was Google, not Microsoft, that announced Thursday it's in discussions with the health-care companies and the US Food and Drug Administration about commercializing the contact lenses.

(Via Danny Sullivan)

Updated at 12:47 p.m. PT to correct Parviz' earlier affiliation. He worked at the University of Washington.