It’s windy and stormy far out at sea. Out on a huge oil rig, there’s a handful of people in safety vests and protective helmets who look rather out of place. The number of employees is kept low on offshore platforms like this, and the reason why is obvious enough: oil rigs are potentially explosive, hazardous facilities. Fewer people means fewer lives at risk, not to mention lower costs. But the brave souls out on this rig have been issued more than just vests and helmets. Their headgear is equipped with futuristic-looking glasses that deliver information on the work steps they need to carry out. The glasses also transmit data to colleagues on the mainland, who can view the events in real time. The Visor-Ex 01 was developed by the Pepperl+Fuchs brand ECOM Instruments for use in potentially explosive areas like this. A display can be folded down over the user’s dominant eye to show them information they would otherwise see on a smartphone. “Freedom of movement and flexibility are still unimpeded, and the screen can be folded up when walking,” explains Christian Uhl, Head of Communications at Pepperl+Fuchs.
The Visor-Ex 01 is just one of many smart glasses whose applications are currently being researched and tested in various industries. Eye wearables promise efficiency gains by extending the user's field of view to include information designed to make their work easier. For a long time, there was even more hype surrounding smart contact lenses, which would not require a cumbersome frame. It sounds like a great idea, but the technology has suffered setbacks in recent years. Expectations were high in 2014 when Google announced that it was selling the rights for its smart lens to the pharmaceutical manufacturer Novartis. People spoke of the lens’s potential to “cure” age-related long-sightedness and help diabetic patients measure their blood sugar levels via chemical sensors. This research was halted in 2018, though, and has yet to resume. “The research with smart contact lenses revealed that chemical sensors produce unreliable results,” explains Thomas Stieglitz, professor of biomedical microtechnology at the University of Freiburg and head of the VDE DGBMT expert committee on neuroprosthetics and intelligent implants. While it’s certainly possible to use such sensors to detect changes in measured values (such as glucose levels), establishing a baseline for determining the degree of change is difficult. This is due to the fact that a baseline value can shift, which is referred to as “drift”. According to Stieglitz, optical sensors could be more stable. “In the future, I can imagine us using solutions based on a mix of physical and optical sensors, maybe with just a few chemical sensors,” he continues.
The technical implementation is only one of the problems facing medical technology when it comes to wearables for the eyes. The solutions also have to comply with an array of regulations, which makes ongoing development tedious and expensive. Stieglitz sees one solution in a worthwhile detour: instead of starting with medical products, companies could gain experience and practice by initially producing wearables for the more profitable consumer market. Smartwatches, for instance, are primarily worn during recreation. They now not only monitor the wearer’s pulse during sports, but also carry out ECG measurements and provide information about blood oxygen content. This development path means that today’s leisure wearables may become tomorrow’s medical products.