In the world of digital advertising, we hear a lot of talk about eyeballs. Consumers have them, advertisers want them, and you should be going after them.

Google contact lens

The weirdness of the notion of eyeballs as a form of virtual currency aside, it seems that Google could be planning to monetize users’ eyeballs – literally – with its new contact lens technology.

This Isn’t Science Fiction

According to a new patent filed by Google with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the new contact lens technology is “an intra-ocular device” that would be directly injected into the user’s eyeball, in the lens capsule of the wearer’s eye (from which “the natural lens of the eye has been removed” prior to injection).

After the surgery, the lens would function in much the same way as the aperture of a camera (which itself was developed to mimic how the human eye reacts to light), adjusting and optimizing the wearer’s vision depending on the environmental conditions detected by the sensor.

The finer details of the patent read like they could have been lifted straight from a William Gibson novel. The device features “a nematic liquid crystal” and a “thin-film solid-state battery,” a layer comprised of “a plurality of flexible silver nanowires”, and an antenna “configured to receive radio frequency energy” as a power source.

Forget glasses, forget Lasik – this is the future of “corrective” lenses.

Google? Contact Lenses? WTF?

Google has been working on its contact lens technology for several years. Developed by Alphabet’s Verily labs, part of Google’s life sciences division, the lenses are but one project among many that may transform the healthcare sector as we know it.

Google contact lens glucose monitor

When Google first announced its plans to develop a revolutionary new contact lens, initial reports suggested that the technology would be used predominantly in healthcare applications, such as monitoring diabetics’ glucose levels. While it appears that Google is indeed still working on this aspect of the technology, the new patent appears to be an entirely new direction for Google and its ambitions to get even closer to its users.

Although the patent suggests several bold new potential applications of the lens, Google is far from the only company pursuing the future of augmented vision. Sony filed a patent earlier this year for a “contact lens and storage medium” that could allow the wearer to capture images with a smart contact lens – presumably allowing the wearer to take pictures (or even record video) with a wink or similarly inconspicuous gesture. In addition, Swiss researchers recently announced that they had successfully developed a telescopic contact lens that allows the wearer to magnify objects 2.8 times with a wink.

Google contact lens Sony patent diagram

Diagram of a contact lens, patented by Sony, featuring recording functionality, data storage, and a wireless communication processing unit

While we could talk for days about what this new contact lens technology could do, perhaps it’s also worth discussing what it shouldn’t do – namely, literally transforming the surface of your eyeball into an advertising platform.

Google Glass – A Cautionary Tale for the 21st Century

When Google Glass was announced, it was heralded as the future of wearable technology. We were treated to slick, impressive videos featuring Google’s vision of augmented reality, such as map overlays that would make navigating anywhere effortless, and picture-in-picture video messaging that we’d be able to take with us wherever we went:

Skeptics, however, soon voiced their concern that Google was hoping to use Glass as an extension of its search advertising business. It wasn’t long before parodies of the Glass videos surfaced online, offering us a glimpse of what the Glass experience could really look like:

Of course, the recently filed patent doesn’t mention anything to do with augmented reality or advertising, and there’s no guarantee that this specific device will ever make it to the commercial market. It’s also worth considering that an advanced technology with such potentially enormous applications in the life sciences and healthcare fields would likely come at a significant price, something that may negate the need for Google to monetize this particular product in that way.

Google contact lens augmented reality concept

Concept mock-up of what Google’s smart contact lens augmented vision might look like. Image via Mashable

However, Google is still very much in the online advertising business, and I’d wager it’s at least being discussed behind closed doors in Mountain View.

For now, we’ll have to content ourselves with speculation about how this particular glimpse of the future that we’ve been offered will develop. In the meantime, the technology should serve as a reminder that we’re actually living in the futuristic dystopia we were promised by science fiction writers like William Gibson and Neal Stephenson more than 20 years ago.

Now, where’s my damned hoverboard?