What’s the next big thing in tech? You’d think that after Google’s Glasses (Glassholes) fiasco and the hopeless hype of Facebook’s Oculus VR goggles we’d be over the whole world-in-your-face thing, but apparently not.
Google, Sony, Samsung and others have got their eyes on a prize where electronic contact lenses become commonplace: A world where conditions like diabetes can be monitored simply by popping in a pair of smart lenses to read your tears to test your blood sugar levels, wirelessly sending data to an external device or local hospital.
Power would come from tiny solar panels on the lenses or even, perhaps, from harvesting radio frequency signals freely floating in the air. The dream is that one day such smart lenses could dispense drugs or monitor a variety of other medical conditions or social interactions.
In a further future, we might even use smart lenses to control everything from our televisions to our toasters or, in a darker future, authoritarian governments might use them to control us.
Or we might dispense with the whole idea of wearing lenses like ephemeral fashion accessories and start to implant them surgically, removing parts of our eyes in what could be an irreversible process. If this sounds a bit like an episode of Black Mirror, you might not be far wrong. If you want a picture of the future, imagine smart contacts stuck to a human face — forever. Blinking hell.
One the one hand, smart contacts might be a highly convenient way of accessing information or accessing augmented realities without the need for external screens or hand controlled devices. Goodbye to smartphones, tablets and laptops potentially. Goodbye to screens, period, in fact.
Google Maps or Microsoft Word could be projected straight into your eyes or computer generated images might be made to float in front of you, blending the real with the unreal in a form of hybrid and potentially highly personalized reality.
Imagine Pokemon Go, but without the need for a cumbersome smartphone. Smart contacts could also act as video cameras. Not so much blink and you’ll miss it as blink and you’ll be able to record it. A gesture-based interface without lifting so much as a finger.
Smart contacts might even allow you to see in the dark, which is something the military are looking into. Other applications might include gaming and adult entertainment. Anywhere where a heads-up display is more realistic, or more convenient, that looking away at a screen or fumbling with a keypad. Surgeons, for example, might find smart contacts useful because they could call up X-rays or fMRI scans without having to remove their hands or gaze from inside a patient. The police might access a suspect’s criminal history while using their hands to restrain the suspect on the ground.
All this could and more could work, because smart contacts are less nerdy and far less obvious than wearing smart glasses or what some people see as a TV screen wrapped across your face.
But there are still problems. Medical applications are fairly uncontroversial, although there are still some issues relating to data security and privacy, as there are with digital medicine in general.
A bigger issue is what the wearing of smart contacts might mean for human interaction. If smart contacts allows individuals to covertly conduct facial recognition on people, or search for data about people in their immediate vicinity, this opens up a number of issues relating to physical security to trust.
You can do this already, to some extent, if you have access to someone’s social media, but smart contacts would allow you to do this more conveniently, more covertly and in real time. And what if smart contacts did allow people to record other people without them knowing? Again, you can argue that we can already do this with phones, but it’s actually quite hard to point a phone at someone without getting noticed and the convention is not to do so.
The bigger issue, though, concerns extreme personalization. If smart contacts were to become ubiquitous we might all experience the world in different ways, based not only on our interests but based upon the interests and financial imperatives of the companies behind such devices.
Google, with its ad-based business model, for instance, might decide to show me one augmented version of London based on what they know about me, but show you something entirely different based upon what they know about you. The virtual overlays, or the travel routes that smart contacts might recommend, could be entirely different. Virtual ads might be inserted everywhere too, impossible to escape potentially, or the lenses might constantly recommend we do certain things thereby removing free will and autonomy.
What of collective memory or experience in such a hyper-personalized and atomized future? How would we talk to one another if we had nothing in common to talk about? Welcome to the Matrix.
This is a bit extreme. It’s far more likely that what amounts to bionic eyes will be niche devices used by the military, security services or medics, but we should all keep our eyes open just in case this particular sci-fi fantasy becomes a dystopian reality.
*Richard Watson is a futurist speaker, scenario thinker and author of the book ‘Digital vs Human: how we’ll live, love and think in the future’. This article was first published in Metro.