January 21, 2014, 12:59 PM — Shannon McGovern probably knows much more about diabetes than you do. Now in her mid-30s, she's had Type 1 diabetes for 18 years, and uses an insulin pump and a Continuous Glucose Monitor (CGM) to help monitor her blood sugar levels throughout the day. "It's one of those things you have to get used to," she says of the devices. "I've gotten to the point in my life where I don't really care what other people think."
McGovern is one of the approximately 26 million Americans--or 8% of the US population--who would benefit from Google's smart contact lens project, announced late last week. The contact lens features a tiny blood glucose monitoring sensor and a barely-there antenna that's thinner than a single strand of hair to monitor and report critical bio data for diabetes patients.
But are diabetes patients ready for Google's latest seemingly wild-eyed technology project? I asked McGovern and several other diabetes sufferers, and the message was clear: They would all try the contact lens, but don't envision an immediate future where they'd give up the traditional glucose-monitoring method of drawing blood with a quick finger prick.
The smart contact lens was conjured up by the Google[x] division, the same company arm that introduced the self-driving car and Google Glass. "[It] might be a way to crack the mystery of tear glucose and measure it with greater accuracy," wrote Brian Otis and Babak Parviz, the project's co-founders.
Many people with diabetes tend to carry a lot of hardware on them, and checking their blood sugar levels is often a demanding endeavor. "I took insulin injections for the first four years after my diagnosis and finally got an Animas insulin pump when I was 17," said Ian Moser, a student at the University of Texas at Austin, who has suffered from diabetes for six years. "Although the pump is a lot more convenient than injection, it still requires you to re-puncture yourself about every three days, and being on the pump also doesn't exclude you from having to prick your fingers sometimes more than six times a day to monitor glucose levels."
Rob Spivey, who lives in West Yorkshire in the UK, said he'd appreciate the convenience of a simple contact lens. "I have never worn contact lenses at all, but if wearing one of those meant I didn't have to carry extra stuff around with me everywhere I go like I do now, then it would definitely be something I would consider giving a try."
Overall, diabetics are reacting positively to Google's tiny technology, and everyone I interviewed expressed hoped that the lens would replace the hardware they already use. "I think that would be super handy," said Diana Rouge, who has been living with diabetes for 17 years. "I carry my glucose meter with me and it's almost like having an extra device."
Indeed, who needs another slab of hardware to carry around in a bag? If nothing else, the smart contact lens could reduce the sheer number of gadgets a diabetes patient needs to lug around.
Data for diabetics
Unlike Google Glass, Google's most famous wearable technology, the smart contact lens isn't designed to make our lives infinitely more digitally connected, and thus potentially more complex. It's being designed to simplify lives--and to hopefully aid in removing the stigma that's associated with having diabetes.
Nonetheless, Google doesn't fully explain how the device is going to work. Nor do we know whether the smart lenses can integrate vision correction. And FDA approval--not to mention insurance company support--is always a crapshoot.
In its official blog post, Google explains the lens would be collecting personal data--blood sugar levels--but that doesn't faze the people I interviewed, all of Google's negative press concerning NSA privacy matters and Internet-of-Things connectivity, notwithstanding.
"To me, it doesn't matter," Rouge said, matter-of-factly.
Moser said, "[The data] isn't that personal, and if an international corporation is interested in helping me be more healthy, more power to them, especially if that data could be used to help other diabetics."
If anything, the people I interviewed were more concerned about procedures than privacy, and wanted to know how the smart lens would preclude the need for drawing blood via those tiresome finger pricks. "How do you get your number?" McGovern asked. "I don't quite understand how that's going to work. Is it going to pop up on my phone?"
McGovern said she assumed the device would just replace the Continuous Glucose Monitor she already has attached to her, and even though she's not sure of the broader implications of Google's smart contact lens, she's excited to try it. "I'm one of those people who loves getting all the latest tech and gadgets," she said. "As soon as the new insulin pump comes out, I'm the first one in line."
While many questions remain unanswered, the buzz remains hot in the diabetes community. The official American Diabetes Association message boards, for instance, features several posts with curious diabetics discussing the mechanics of the new gadget. Most of the commenters seem open to the idea of a contact lens that could help them with the disease, but one user, t1wayne, just wants to know: "Why can't someone just cure this lousy disease?"