The power of tears: Why Google has its eye on smart contact lenses

When the cronut craze swept across New York in early spring of last year, the only major inconvenience associated with Dominique Ansel's novel culinary confection was the pain of waiting in line to get it. For a responsible person living with Type 1 (or Type 2) diabetes, like my good friend Cara, that wait time for a hip baked good would've been compounded by a few more irritating factors.

First, there'd be a necessary finger prick test (administered in the open by an always on-hand glucometer) to measure blood sugar levels an hour before eating. Then, a guesstimate would need to be calculated of just how many carbs that precious SoHo sweet contained, followed by an adjustment of insulin delivery levels on a waist-worn pump. And, finally, a follow-up finger prick test would need to be done two hours after eating the cronut to once again establish a necessary insulin base line. That is true inconvenience. That is life with diabetes. And as you might imagine, not all diabetics are this disciplined. But Google wants to change that... with contact lenses.

The idea isn't new, so don't race to applaud Google just yet. Researchers have been kicking around various ways to implement contact lens-based glucose monitoring for years; methods that include a biofuel cell that runs on tears and glucose level fluctuation via fluorescence. Google's taking a similar approach with its smart contact lenses, only with LEDs in place of fluorescence to alert wearers. Yes, that means diabetics could be walking around with color-changing contacts in their eyes, just not in the way you or Lil' Kim would necessarily want.

The idea isn't new, so don't race to applaud Google just yet.

The other obvious upside to contact lens-based glucose monitoring can be boiled down to two words with heavy resonance amongst diabetics: continuous and non-invasive. Would you want to prick your fingers multiple times a day? Don't worry, I'm aware the sane answer is no. Would you want to check a mirror or compact every few hours to monitor a colored dot beneath your lower eyelid that corresponded to varying glucose levels? The correct response is: "Sure. I prefer anything that doesn't involve stabbing myself and running the risk of infection daily." And that's the promise of Google's smart contact lens technology. It would afford diabetics a degree of freedom they don't currently enjoy; an ability to forgo that crude blood drawing ritual in favor of contacts that wirelessly "generate a reading once per second."

Unfortunately, wearable diabetes-detection technologies like this haven't yet made it to the mainstream. It's not because they lack a proof of concept, but because of price, as one researcher behind fluorescence-based detection discovered. That cost barrier is something Google could help to alleviate with its pervasive, free-to-use services model... or, at least, I assume that will be the approach. When daily disposable contacts are already too much for most people's health insurance to cover, the prospects for disposable, glucose-monitoring contact lenses appear niche and dim. But are they?

According to a Center for Disease Control report from 2011, nearly 26 million Americans are currently living with diabetes and about a further 7 million are undiagnosed. That figure doesn't even take into account the additional 79 million people living with prediabetes, the precursor to Type 2 diabetes, which accounts for up to 95 percent of all cases in the United States. Type 2 is the form of diabetes associated with aging and a sedentary lifestyle, so the figure, though alarming, shouldn't faze you all that much.

Now, that's our government's latest data from three years ago. Google, in its smart contact lens announcement, cited 2013 figures gathered by the International Diabetes Foundation, a non-profit based in Brussels, Belgium. The IDF numbers peg the United States as the number three country for persons living with diabetes between the ages of 20 and 79, with about 24.4 million diabetics. Contrast that with China and India, which are home to 98.4 million and 65.1 million diabetics, respectively. Those numbers then conflate to about 382 million globally when every territory is factored in, and that's just for 2013. Estimates for the year 2035 have the incidence of global diabetes spiking up to 592 million. Or to go with the CDC's projections, we're looking at one in every three Americans being diagnosed with diabetes by 2050. Are you starting to see the problem here?

The truth is, Google wants data. It's a company that's built on information-gathering as a trade.

But why does Google care about diabetes? Surely, the news of its contact lens project would've been met with less confusion had Google announced it was an obvious progression of the Glass project; a mobile wearable that's literally on your eye. I'm sure that's what most of us expected, anyway. The truth is, Google wants data. It's a company that's built on information-gathering as a trade. It's why the company recently shelled out $3.2 billion for Nest -- an obvious bid to track our energy usage. You get your Gmail and search and various other Google services for free because Google gets your personal data. That's Google currency and our health information is just another facet of that. We all get sick, and we all know doctors and HMOs and hospitals and pharmacies are a chore to deal with. Google knows this and if it can flip that paradigm around and put the control into its users' hands, well then it's a win/win. We get to track, control and monitor our health data via a Google-hosted database and partner apps, and Google gets to mine that info for every last dollar it's worth.

You're not alone in sensing a state of déjà vu here; Google's done this before and the results were disappointing. Back in 2008, the company introduced Google Health, a database for the personal collection of health records that was, in theory, a great idea: health records that belong to and move with you, not medical practices. In the company's own words, Google Health was "based on the idea that with more and better information, people can make smarter choices ... in regard to managing personal health and wellness[.]" Of course, that access to information is a two-way street. This being Google, the usage habits of Health users were recorded (e.g., links clicked, number of sign-ins) for internal purposes -- the kind of data that makes up Google Trends. Ultimately, though, the power to disclose information remained solely in the hands of users, as Google Health's privacy policy explicitly stated. So Google, barring any mandatory compliance with governmental requests, could only see what medical info users chose to disclose and nothing more.

It failed, though, and Google was forced to shutter the project in 2012. Turns out, it was unsurprisingly only popular with "tech-savvy patients and their caregivers, and ... fitness and wellness enthusiasts." Let's break that down a bit further. Google Health's base was comprised primarily of early adopters and fitness freaks -- the exact sort of demo that takes immediately to wearable technologies. Take that demo, add in a known (and growing) epidemic like diabetes, existing contact lens-based glucose monitoring technologies, mix them all together and you have a recipe for the successful resurrection of Google Health. But let's not call it that just yet, until Google does, that is.

So Google's getting back into the health game, albeit through the backdoors of upward trending wellness issues like geriatrics and diabetes. And all because Google cares... about your data.