Walking down any street is a familiar scene: people craned their necks while looking at their phones. But in the near future, we may just stare at the digital information hovering over the world in front of us, merging the digital and real worlds, all thanks to augmented reality. In a modest office building in Saratoga, California, dozens of engineers are working to make that future a reality, producing weekly prototypes of smart contact lenses packed with tiny circuits, batteries and one of the world’s smallest displays.
When I visited Mojo Vision’s offices in July, I tried its capabilities with its augmented reality smart contact lens about an inch in front of my eyes, and moved the cursor around the space in front of me by moving the lens. Unable to wear contact lenses, I used a virtual reality headset to test its eye-tracking technology and demo app, which guides a small cursor just by moving my eyes. When I move my eyes, I can read from a digital teleprompter that displays a series of words, and I can also look around the room and see arrows pointing north and west, designed to help end users navigate outdoors.
To “click” an app dotted around a circle hovering in front of me, I just look at a small tab next to the app for an extra second. Numbers and text appear above my field of vision, such as showing my cycling speed, or showing the weather, or giving me information about an upcoming flight. To close the app, I leave that message for a full second.
Technologists have been talking about what the next computing platform will be for years, a decade after mobile devices replaced desktop computing as our main gateway to the internet. Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg is betting on the virtual world, a fully immersive virtual world that you enter through a headset.
But I think the bigger shift will be augmented reality, where glasses or contact lenses can display information about the world around us so we can see both online and the real world. If there’s one thing humans love to do (albeit badly in many cases), it’s multitasking. Phones will become more like mini servers, coordinating all the disparate devices we’ll increasingly wear on our bodies: earbuds, watches and, soon, glasses, the latest in the invisible computing puzzle.
The Mojo Vision lens is an engineering marvel, perhaps one of the most ambitious hardware projects in Silicon Valley today. The company had to develop its own chemicals and plastic compounds that allow the eyeball to breathe through the lenses that cover the electronics. When I held the lens in my hand, it was noticeably thick and large enough to extend beyond the iris to cover part of the white of the eye.
“It wasn’t hard,” said David Hobbs, the startup’s senior director of product management, who wore several prototypes.
The lens includes nine titanium cells typically found in pacemakers and a flexible circuit narrower than a human hair that provides all the power and data. A slightly convex mirror reflects light from a tiny reflector, simulating the mechanics of a telescope, which magnifies pixels by just two microns, or about 0.002 millimeters. From a few feet away, that tiny display looks like a beam of light. But when I looked more closely through the lens, I could see a video of Baby Yoda that was as sharp and engaging as any video I’d seen on the screen.
I can imagine people watching TikTok videos one day, but Mojo Vision wants the footage to have a practical use. The message it shows on your eyes should be “very tight, quick, quick snippets,” said Steve Sinclair, senior vice president of product and marketing. Still, the company is figuring out that “how much information is too much information,” said Sinclair, who worked on the product team at Apple that developed the iPhone.
Currently, Mojo Vision is developing a lens for the visually impaired that displays glowing digital edges overlaid on objects to make them easier to see. It’s also testing different interfaces with the company that makes running, skiing and golf apps for phones to enable a new kind of hands-free activity display. Consumers can buy Mojo lenses with a custom prescription in less than five years, unless hindered by regulation, Sinclair said. That could be an ambitious timeline, considering other augmented reality projects have been delayed or, like Google Glass, lived up to the hype.
Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc., has also failed to offer smart contact lenses for medical use, but overall, big tech companies have been driving much of the development around virtual and augmented reality. According to Bloomberg, Apple is working on lightweight augmented reality glasses that it plans to release later this decade. It’s also expected to unveil a mixed reality headset sometime next year, to show off to its board in May. Facebook currently dominates sales of virtual reality devices with its Quest 2 headset, but it’s also racing to launch its first augmented reality glasses in 2024, according to an April report from The Verge.
Why does augmented reality take longer? Because it blends digital elements with physical objects in a constantly moving view. This is a complex task that requires a lot of processing power. Even so, we want at least one foot to stay in the real world, which means we’re likely to spend more time in augmented reality in the long run.
The big question is how to balance a real-life presence while constantly seeing digital information. Today, it takes seconds to take out a phone, launch an app, and perform a task on its screen. In the future, we’ll be able to enter an app just by looking at it for an extra second. This will raise all kinds of tough questions about addiction and how we interact with the world around us.
Sinclair said he had the same problem a few years ago when he was developing the iPhone. “I can’t say how we at Mojo will fully mitigate this,” he said. “But the trend is moving in that direction and people will have instant access to information.”
Whether it’s contact lenses or glasses, the human eye will point to a world where there is more digital information than ever before. Our brains will have a lot of habits.